The Mine Safety and Health Administration has been beefing up its work force in an effort to increase inspections after a series of mining disasters from West Virginia to Utah.
A report last year by the inspector general found that MSHA had failed to carry out inspections at 107 of the 731 underground coal mines operating in 2006, or 15 percent of the total.
Forty-seven miners were killed on the job in 2006, one of the deadliest for miners in more than a decade. Six miners and three attempting rescues also died in 2007 at the Utah Crandall Canyon mine, while 15 mining fatalities have been reported nationwide since Jan. 1.
MSHA chief Richard Stickler said Monday the agency has 750 inspectors with the 322 new hires. But, because of resignations and retirements, the new hires represent a net increase of 163 inspectors.
Stickler said he also has embarked on a plan to ensure inspectors complete required visits to every coal mine in the nation, aided by $10 million earmarked for overtime pay this year.
"We're doing everything we can to see that we make all the mandated inspections," he said.
Mine safety advocate Tony Oppegard, a Lexington lawyer, said that without additional inspectors, MSHA had been unable to meet a federal requirement to visit each mine four times annually.
"It was an absolute necessity that they add additional inspectors," he said. "In my view, the best days that coal miners have underground are the days that inspectors are underground."
Stickler said inspectors have been logging about 35,000 hours of overtime each quarter to conduct inspections and ensure compliance with a sweeping federal safety law enacted in 2006.
Designed to better protect the 43,000 workers at underground coal mines, the law mandates larger stockpiles of emergency air packs. It also gives MSHA until June to require wireless communications and tracking equipment underground, among other measures.
Stickler said technology hasn't yet developed to the point of providing reliable wireless communication between underground workplaces and the surface after cave-ins or explosions.
The agency also is studying a proposal to require coal operators to install airtight emergency refuges underground. The refuges would have to be equipped with enough air, water and survival basics to keep miners alive at least four days while awaiting rescue.
MSHA estimates that the proposal, if implemented, would cost the coal industry between $84.1 million and $102.6 million in the first year and between $38.7 million and $43.3 million a year after that.
Regular reports of accidents are raising concerns about safety.
A 40-year-old coal miner was reported dead Monday after a below-ground accident at the Harmony Mine near Mount Carmel, Pa., about 90 miles northwest of Philadelphia. Federal and state inspectors have gone to the mine, owned by UAE Coal Corp. Associates.