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Contrasting Views Emerge of MSHA Chief’s Performance

By James Sharpe

On the eve of Joe Main’s second anniversary as head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), two contrasting portraits of his performance have emerged. A positive account in a coalfield’s newspaper portrayed the assistant secretary as moving decisively to assure there are no more mining disasters. A less flattering picture was published by a newsletter devoted to mine safety and health.

Significantly, the newspaper quoted sources most likely to view Main favorably. These people included a leading Democratic lawmaker, an attorney specializing in protecting coal miners’ legal rights, and Main’s old boss at the MSHA chief’s former place of work, the United Mine Workers of America. Located as it is in Kentucky coal country, the paper focused its attention on the coal sector.

Conversely, the newsletter piece sought comment about Main’s performance primarily from officials in the non-coal sector, mainly trade association executives and safety pros. Two researchers and a MSHA field supervisor were also interviewed. Sixteen individuals offered opinions. As expected with a group of this size, viewpoints varied quite substantially, but the overall impression of Main’s leadership was negative.

Viewing Performance
Regardless of how one views his performance, it is beyond a doubt that Main’s tenure has been indelibly scarred by the Upper Big Branch-South (UBB) coal mine tragedy that occurred less than five months into his appointment. The industry expected a vigorous response and got it. After all, UBB was the worst coal mining disaster in the U.S. in nearly 40 years. What’s more, it occurred on the watch of a man charged with enforcing mining law who once had been the top safety officer of a union proclaiming to protect miners’ health and safety.

UBB also cost Main a substantial measure of control over his agency. Suddenly, mine safety became a national issue, drawing in no less than the President of the United States himself and a host of top-level politicians and bureaucrats. Hard noses within the agency also saw opportunity. Main was forced to jump through hoops others had begun to set for him.

A strong response was certainly appropriate, but the failure of Main’s leadership has been that he didn’t focus his reaction, or couldn’t. If the lesson he drew from UBB was that because one mine operator put profits before people, all of them do, he wasn’t paying attention. In fairness, the enforcement free-for-all that has pervaded all of mining, not just coal, began under Main’s predecessor. Like Main, he too found himself whipsawed by external forces. But the buck stops with the man in charge, and Main allowed the numbers-driven frenzy to go on when there were neither disasters in the non-coal sector nor damning safety statistics to support it. Unnecessary for sure, but coming during an economic downturn, it has been inexcusable as well.

Feelings Evident
The feeling was evident in the views of those the newsletter interviewed. They are having a hard time getting past what MSHA has done to them and, in fact, what agency enforcement personnel still seem to be doing in scattered parts of the country.

The accolades thrown up for Main in the newspaper article did offer one opposing view. Impact inspections and pattern of violation proceedings have their place against rogue operators, but Carol Raulston of the National Mining Association said more change was needed. “[E]nsuring our mines and employees are safe will take new approaches based on our analysis of mining and non-mining operations – domestic and international – that have achieved dramatic safety advances. We are working on those approaches now,” she said.

Because it is a work in progress, the effort has been kept under wraps. But it is believed to be similar to a risk-based safety model put in place in Australia after a devastating coal mining accident there 20-odd years ago. Enabling legislation made it happen.

That leads to the second major criticism of Main’s tenure, one reflected in some comments. His agency seeks legislative changes to the Mine Act, but all point to providing more power to an already omnipotent agency so it can club operators with an even heavier cudgel. The agency is not asking for changes that would bring the antiquated statute into the modern era. If the law had to be changed to make Australian mines the safest in the world, that change is needed here too. But it is not on MSHA’s legislative agenda.

No one doubts that Main sincerely has the best interests of miners at heart. But his model for assuring those interests are protected is dangerously out-of-date. A new vision is needed. We have yet to see it expressed by this assistant secretary.