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Assistant Secretary of Labor – MSHA Joe Main, in an exclusive three-part interview with Rock Products, talks about MSHA initiatives, aggregates industry enforcement, inspector consistency and what he sees in the future.

By Mark S. Kuhar

This is the second in a three-part feature. – Ed.

ROCK PRODUCTS: One of the complaints we hear all the time from aggregates producers concerns inspector consistency. What are you doing to make sure the law is being enforced uniformly from quarry to quarry?

MAIN: I think that the work we’ve done here over the last two years is paying dividends, and we are really engaging a lot with the mining industry to bring about better consistency in the way we go about inspections and how we train supervisors. One of the things I realized when I came here is that about half of the inspectors on our staff had two years or less of inspection experience, and that happened because there was a shortage, which Congress rectified by adding more inspectors. Plus, we had an aged workforce and a number of inspectors had retired.

We needed to do some work to get better oversight over inspectors, so I created a supervisory training program that has involved every field supervisor in both coal and metal/nonmetal, and we were able to start this just about the time Upper Big Branch occurred last year. We had to delay some of it but we’re finishing up the last 5 percent in coal, with metal/nonmetal supervisors going through the training. And that’s again, to help get better oversight, better control and more consistency over our inspections.

The other thing I’ll point out too, if you look at the record and go back prior to the 2006 era, when Sago, Darby and Alma occurred, and with the increased enforcement that has taken place, you see an improvement in the mining industry. As a matter of fact, I just looked at the last fiscal year that we finished up September the 30th, and I say this with one breath: We finished up that quarter with the safest year ever in the history of mining in this country – that’s a combination of coal and metal/nonmetal – but with metal/nonmetal actually having the better performance of the two, in this past year. But having said that, we all know that in a heartbeat that can change and unfortunately, right after that report came out, we had a rash of mining deaths throughout the industry that reflected the fact that we cannot take our eye off of this for a second, or that record that we all work hard to achieve can change. And I give credit not only to our agency, but the whole mining industry, who I think has improved its attitude toward compliance over the last couple of years particularly, to bring about the improvements that we had.

ROCK PRODUCTS: In addition to inconsistency in enforcing the law, another complaint that I hear quite a bit is that the MSHA inspectors nit-pick small insignificant things that really have no bearing on health, safety or fatalities just to meet their quota of violations.

MAIN: You know, I’ve heard a lot of different complaints about what we write. I get a lot of those sometimes through “congressionals,” when I track back through. The story seems to be a bit different in what came through, because on every one of those, I am obligated to get back to Congress. So I probably see a lot more of those than you do.

Well, here’s the deal. When I took over as the head of MSHA, there was a clear message I put out. There was this rumor going around that we had a quota here. We don’t have a quota. What we have is a quality inspection expectation that requires our people use common sense when they’re out doing inspections, be professional and communicate with the mining industry to explain what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. I recently had a meeting with all the district managers in coal, where I again walked through that basic principle, because that’s what I believe in.

There are two facts that exist. One is that when an inspector goes to a mine, they’re obligated to cite what they see, and whatever they cite carries a penalty that is set by the regulations in place. So those are two obligations under the Mine Act that inspectors have to adhere to. We are trying to get a grid of communications between the mine operators and our inspectors. As a matter of fact, we just had a conference down in the Southeast, where we brought together pretty much the whole Southeast mining industry and our inspectors, and our field office supervisors, to sit down and spend some quality time working through these issues.

We take our district inspectors or district managers with us to those meetings and one of the things I encourage is that if there are issues like that, there needs to be communication with our industry district people on the local level. I’m a believer in that, and we’ve done everything we can to encourage the mining industry, if you have problems like that and you think that we’re being unreasonable, don’t hesitate, go get a hold of the district manager and ask for me, and we’ll sit down and discuss those issues. I think that’s the best way to get them resolved. So we’re working pretty hard to try to get greater communication with our inspectors, with the mining industry, and to do a better job ourselves of explaining what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, what we are issuing out there.

Some of the people from NSSGA attend these conferences, check with them. The feedback we are getting from them is that we’re on the right track here trying to solve some of these problems. [Editor’s Note: We did check with them, during NSSGA’s Regulatory Update Webinar on December 13, and they agreed that MSHA has done a better job recently reaching out to the aggregates industry on these matters.]

ROCK PRODUCTS: The Small Mine Office was created to reach out to small mining operations to help them improve or develop safety and health programs tailored specifically to the needs of their miners and operations. Rumor has it that it is being phased out.

MAIN: I’ve said this a number of times. I believe in the small mines program that we have at MSHA. I have supported the small mines program. As a matter of fact, we just expanded it to work with our 5002 initiative with the state aggregates associations, to help implement our 5002 reforms. I think there’s a question here about a budget issue. I believe it’s best managed at the local level, as opposed to out of Washington.

As far as the program, I believe in it, I’ve supported it, and I plan to keep it around unless our budget gets cut. The question is what happens with the management of it on a local level or the national level. And one of the things that I believe is important in all this is that when mine operators need assistance, we need to deliver that. We are not getting rid of the small mines program; we’re just looking at how we can change the management of it. I don’t know how to say that any more clearly than I have.

ROCK PRODUCTS: What are your thoughts on the concept of consultative safety – the idea that MSHA could play a stronger role in reducing injuries and fatalities if it acted sometimes more in an advisory capacity with the operations that are genuinely working to comply with the Mine Act, versus those who are not, and deserve to feel MSHA’s wrath as an enforcement entity?

MAIN: I think there’s confusion out there about what the Mine Act requires and what MSHA is supposed to do, and I think some of that is legitimate. I think that as we go out in the industry we’re helping to clear that up for those who are confused about it and don’t understand what our responsibility is. We have the obligation to cite something if we see it. That is the Mine Act. That’s something that I can’t change nor can the inspectors change. That’s the way things are.

In terms of the good operations, yes, there are good operations and one of the things that I launched a little over a year ago, that we’re still doing, is trying to get some of the mining operations with the best health and safety programs to come forward. We’re having seminars and forums to have them do presentations for the rest of the industry. We just did one in the Southeast. We’ve been working with the NSSGA to provide us names of employers that are doing a good job, and I’ll tell you what, those discussions have been quite beneficial. We’ve had a number of different companies – both small and large operators – get involved. Vulcan Materials has worked with us in trying to look at programs that actually help the smaller operators.

I understand, as we all do, that if they don’t have the infrastructure, the safety programs that the larger operators have, we do need to provide them with some support. So as we look forward, I think we’ll flush out the bad operators. We still have a long way to go, we know that, but I think there is a real attitude change in the mining industry, with those who have the good programs and are working to maintain those and working with us to help others understand how they can get there.

It’s not all enforcement, I will tell you that. It is enforcement and carrying out the obligations of the law, but also looking at ways that we can provide other kinds of assistance and guidance to the mining industry.

Portions of this interview have been edited for length and clarity. Next month, in the third part, Main talks about the economy, the MINER Act and zero-citation inspections.

MSHA’s ‘Main’ Man

Joseph A. (Joe) Main was nominated by President Barack Obama as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health (MSHA). He was confirmed by the Senate on October 21, 2009.

According to his official bio, Main is an internationally recognized expert in mine health and safety issues. For more than 40 years, he has worked to improve every aspect of miner health and safety, both in the United States and internationally.

Born in Waynesburg Pa., Main is a native of Greene County, Pa. He began working at coal mines in 1967 and quickly became an advocate for miner's safety and health. He was hired by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) in 1974 to be an Assistant to the International President. In 1976, he joined the Safety Division of the UMWA, serving as Safety Inspector, Administrative Assistant and Deputy Director.

In 1982, he was appointed Administrator of the UMWA Occupational Health and Safety Department, a position he held for 22 years. In that position, Main managed the international health and safety program of the UMWA. He has served on a number of federal advisory committees, joint labor/management committees, mining industry partnerships and international tripartite committees relating to mine safety.

Main has extensive hands-on experience inspecting and evaluating mining conditions, plans and systems and has been involved in a number of mine emergencies and accident investigations. Before he accepted President Obama’s nomination, Mr. Main worked as a mine safety consultant. His recent work focused on research and analysis on prevention of mine accidents and disasters, development of training programs and facilities to prepare miners, rescue teams and emergency responders for mine emergencies, and international mine safety issues.

Source: MSHA