Barely a year after the nation’s deadliest coal mining accident in four decades, the industry is calling for relaxing federal regulatory procedures to exempt mines with good safety records from routine workplace inspections.

As the The Charleston Gazette reports, a representative from the National Mining Assn. suggested the idea at a Wednesday hearing of the House Subcommittee on Education and the Workforce.

“Enforcement is necessary, particularly with regard to ‘bad actors,’ but to truly modernize mine safety we have to develop performance structures that engage all stakeholders in a problem-solving manner,” Anthony Bumbico, who also is vice president of safety at Arch Coal, told the panel.

In his prepared testimony, the industry representative said “overly proscriptive regulatory requirements can inhibit the ability of companies to respond proactively to health and safety issues.” He added that “often, the time spent dealing with bureaucratic requirements steals precious time that could be spent eliminating a barrier to safe performance.”

As a solution, Bumbico proposed an initiative modeled after the longstanding Voluntary Protection Program, or VPP, effort run by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, which regulates most workplaces but not mines. OSHA exempts VPP employers from “programmed,” or routine inspections, but still conducts workplace inspections in the event of an accident or a complaint.

VPP supporters say the effort inspires improved workplace safety practices and allows regulators to focus on problem employers. A 2009 report by the U.S. General Accountability Office, however, called for tightened oversight of VPP. GAO investigators found that VPP companies commonly misreported workplace injuries, and that some VPP employers had workplace injury rates that exceeded the averages for their industries.

Coal mines are regulated by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, which carries out regular safety inspections. The approach has been credited with significant drops in risk of working in coal mines. In the early 1970s, hundreds of people died each year in coal mines. By 2009, the number of deaths overall in coal and other mines dropped to record low of 34, before jumping back up to 71 last year.

The National Mining Assn. regulatory proposal, a revived version of an idea that the industry previously has raised, comes just 13 months after the April 5, 2010, Upper Big Branch disaster in Montcoal, W.Va., that took the lives of 29 miners.

It also came a day after the MSHA announced what the agency’s chief called “outrageous” violations — including ventilation problems that can lead to black lung disease and hazards that raise the risk of an explosion — at the Randolph Mine in Boone County, W.Va. The mine is owned by Massey Energy, which also owns Upper Big Branch. The MSHA issued five citations and 20 orders requiring workers to be removed from the mine.

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