Mine Inspection Jurisdiction Expanded

For want of setting a parking brake, a mining equipment company made a federal case of a paltry $116 fine, and Wednesday a federal appeals court clarified, not only must it pay the fine, but the court expanded jurisdiction of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration over independent contractors.

Western Oilfields Supply Co., which operates as Rain for Rent, provides rented pumps for mine operations and provides maintenance. It challenged a $116 fine on one of its employees who failed to set a handbrake on his truck in 2017, while working at an Arizona quarry to maintain a pump he had previously installed.

Failure to set a handbrake is a safety violation. A mine safety inspector just happened to be at the Lhoist North America mine at the start of an 11-day routine inspection. The Rain for Rent worker was cited for the handbrake violation.

Despite a lower court rejection of Rain for Rent’s “storm of objections” to the citation, the company appealed.

The Court of Appeal for the District of Columbia denied the company’s three central objections: that the worker was not subject to the jurisdiction of the Mine Act, that because the worker had not yet signed in for the day he was not really “performing services” under the law, and that the inspection violated the Mine Act, because it was a warrantless search.

Appeals court Chief Judge Merrick Garland said it was time to take the opportunity to “clear up some confusion about the rights the Act grants mine operators.”

The issue was not whether the employee had signed in to start work but that Rain for Rent was performing ongoing services for the mining company as an independent contractor and thus subject to the Mine Act inspection requirements.

“It offers nothing that would distinguish between the walk from truck to office and the walk from office to pump,” Garland writes. “During each trip, [the worker] was on-site to execute his responsibilities under a contract for services,” Garland says.

The panel also rejected the argument that the inspector opening the truck door amounted to a warrantless inspection. The mining industry is closely regulated and Congress has found warrantless inspections a “substantial federal interest,” Garland wrote.

Rain for Rent has to pay the $116 fine.

Case: Western Oilfields Supply Co. v. Secretary of Labor, No. 18-1296

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