Although it’s three decades old, a powerful enforcement tool has been used for the very first time by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

Bledsoe Coal Corp.’s and The New West Virginia Mining Co. were warned that mines they operate in Kentucky and West Virginia could be shut down for any future violations. This was the first time the full enforcement action was taken under Section 104(e) of the federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977.

“If we are to prevent death, injury and illness in the nation's mines, these enforcement actions are necessary to rein in chronic and persistent violators of safety and health laws," said Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor of MSHA.

Last November, the agency put 13 mines on notice that each had a potential pattern of violations. A 14th mine received similar notification in December, after an agency audit revealed that the mine operator had failed to report a dozen injuries. All 14 mines that received potential POV notices implemented corrective action programs to reduce their significant and substantial, known as S&S, issuance rates.

Subsequent to the potential POV notifications, two of the 14 mines were temporarily idled. One ceased production. One has not completed the evaluation process. Between Jan. 3 and March 21, 2011, MSHA conducted inspections of the 10 remaining mines. Of those, eight met the prescribed S&S goals, and the two operations now receiving the POV notices failed to meet their goals by a significant margin.

MSHA previously implemented major reforms to its POV process, including new screening criteria and a new review process that improves the agency's ability to identify problem mines. Although the Upper Big Branch Mine met the new criteria and also received a potential POV notification, further actions have been postponed until MSHA's investigation into the April 2010 explosion there has been completed.

Under Section 104(e) of the Mine Act, MSHA issues a withdrawal order at a POV mine each time it issues an S&S violation. The order remains in place until the violation is abated. An operator can be removed from pattern of violations status after undergoing a complete inspection without receiving an S&S violation.

The MSHA recently introduced an online monitoring tool that, for the first time, allows mine operators and miners to track a mine's compliance history and compare it to the potential POV criteria. Additional mines are under review by MSHA for potential POV and POV actions.