A judge has vacated a citation, and the associated $12,248 fine, after determining a contractor had not violated the Mine Safety and Health Administration’s housekeeping standard at a Nevada gold mine.

The November 2013 citation against Minnesota-based Ames Construction, Inc., resulted after an MSHA inspector found what he described as “[m]ultiple tripping hazards” in and around a passageway in a tool storage trailer at the mine in Eureka County. He found a power box, folding chair and sheets of plywood restricted a passageway to 13 inches, narrower than the 24-inch width the inspector believed was safe.

The penalty was high in good measure because the inspector assessed the alleged violation (1) as reasonably likely to lead to serious injury, and (2) as high negligence, because, according to the inspector, the Ames supervisor told him he knew the trailer needed cleaning, but he was busy on a project at that time.

Noting that MSHA provides no guidance regarding what constitutes a violation of its housekeeping standard (30 CFR § 56.20003(a)), Administrative Law Judge David Simonton discounted the inspector’s opinion that 24-inch clearance represents a safe passageway. He also pointed  to the photographic evidence that he said showed “several feet of clear space” to the sides of the objects, which allowed workers to move past them. The evidence also indicated other items in the trailer were stored in an orderly fashion, the judge added.

Regarding the high negligence classification, Simonton credited the testimony of the Ames supervisor, who stated that he had instructed workers at a safety meeting that morning to clean the trailer and that employees were in the process of carrying out the instruction when the MSHA inspector arrived.

Although the supervisor had conceded to the inspector that a hazard existed, he testified he was simply agreeing that some material needed to be removed from the trailer. He stated he did not inform the inspector he had assigned workers to clean the trailer because he became frustrated after the government’s representative accused him of willfully exposing his workers to a hazard.

Simonton vacated the citation after concluding the evidence indicated the trailer “was kept in a relatively clean and orderly condition free of safety hazards and that the Respondent’s [Ames’] employees were actively removing materials normally stored elsewhere at the time of the citation in order to clean the trailer.”