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MSHA will pursue unpaid fines, OSHA to hire inspectors, Acosta tells House committee

A Acosta
Photo: Department of Labor

Washington — The Department of Labor is seeking to recover $67 million in unpaid health and safety fines issued by the Mine Safety and Health Administration over the past decade, Secretary R. Alexander Acosta said during a hearing March 6 on the fiscal year 2019 budget.

Acosta announced the initiative before the House Appropriations Committee’s Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies Subcommittee.

“Americans across the country understand that if you have a fine, you have to pay. Anyone who has received a ticket knows that quite well,” Acosta said. “Beginning immediately, we are notifying individuals that have not paid their fines – and they need to pay their fines. We have legal methods at our disposal that we can implement if they have not paid those fines.”

In an op-ed piece published in The Intelligencer/Wheeling News Register and posted to MSHA’s website, MSHA administrator David Zatezalo said mine owners who fail to pay their fines could be forced to halt production, adding that miners would continue to be paid.

In other news, Acosta said OSHA could hire as many as 65 new inspectors to replace the 40 or so the agency has lost through attrition since January 2017. The secretary said he became concerned about that shortage this past summer and gave the agency an exemption from a hiring freeze to begin the process of employing more inspectors.

Former OSHA Deputy Assistant Secretary Jordan Barab pointed out via Twitter that hiring OSHA inspectors is a long process. “Not only the slow federal hiring process, but medical exams,” Barab tweeted. “Then three years of training before they’re fully qualified.”

President Donald Trump’s FY 2019 budget proposal, released Feb. 12, seeks to give OSHA about $549 million – identical to its current funding – with an increase of 71 full-time equivalent workers. The agency wants 42 new FTEs for enforcement and 32 for areas such as compliance assistance, outreach and the Voluntary Protection Programs.

In its congressional budget justification, OSHA set a goal of 30,840 inspections for this upcoming fiscal year – 1,556 fewer than in FY 2017 (the most recent data available) – and will focus on “the highest-impact and most complex inspections at the highest-risk workplaces.” OSHA also stated it will continue implementing its new weighting system to analyze enforcement and “other mission-critical field activities.” The OSHA Enforcement Weighting System is slated to go into full effect by Oct. 1.

“I am concerned that you plan to scale back enforcement activities, which would result in less oversight of bad employers that deprive workers of honest wages or expose them to dangerous health and safety hazards,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), the subcommittee’s ranking member, said in her opening statement.

The Trump administration wants a $1.1 billion cut to the Department of Labor, including the elimination of the Susan Harwood Training Grant Program.

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