Some of That 'Change' You've Been Hearing About

A key post to watch as a barometer of how serious the U.S. government is about the well-being of its people is Assistant Labor Secretary for Mine Safety and Health.

Mining is the most dangerous job in the world. There are dozens of ways to be injured or killed if you work in a mine. Things can fall on you. Conveyors can tear you apart or lynch you. Vehicles tip. You could suffocate. Things can fall and block your way out. You could fall. Things might explode. And, there’s always the eventuality that your lungs will turn black. So far this year in the Untied States of America, there have been 12 fatalities in coal mines. Last year, there were 30. Since 1996, 443 people have died in coal mine accidents. (And I haven’t even bothered to look up the numbers for metal/nonmetal mines. These are just coal mines.)

Mamas. Do not let your babies grow up to be miners. Seriously.

Imagine what that number would be if the federal government wasn’t charged to inspect and regulate and fine. Oh, wait. You don’t have to imagine. Just have a look at China’s numbers:

China currently accounts for the largest number of coal-mining fatalities, accounting for about 80% of the world’s total, although it produces only 35% of the world’s coal. Between January 2001 to October 2004, there were 188 accidents that had a death toll of more than 10, about one death every 7.4 days.

So you see, Assistant Labor Secretary for Mine Safety and Health is kind of an important job.

Under the previous president, MSHA was headed by a man who was most certainly teased mercilessly as a child: Dick Stickler, formerly head of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety and a stuffed shirt at BethEnergy. Stickler’s nomination faced widespread opposition from the United Mine Workers of America and in the Senate. Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia said Stickler had overseen “some of the most dangerous, most frequently cited for safety violations in the entire industry. In fact, his mines had a rate of preventable accidents that were 3 times the national average.” Two confirmation votes failed, and Gorge Dubya Boosh eventually offered Dick Stickler a recess appointment. Bear in mind that at the time the Senate was controlled by the GOOP. But mine safety was kind of a hot-button issue at the time due to that Sago incident and all.

Stickler came under criticism by his bosses for his handling of the collapse of the Crandall Canyon Mine collapse in 2007 for “…his ‘obsession’ for keeping a continuous log of the progress made or lost by tunneling rescuers,” which was said to demand that the crews had to halt the rescue digging to report to him. Apparently, Dick Stickler is a bit of a stickler. Also, a report from the Inspector General of the Labor Department said that MHSA was negligent in protecting workers at the mine.

Before Dick Stickler of course was David Lauriski—who was confirmed by the Senate—who famously ran whistle-blower Jack Spadaro out of town on a rail and who wanted to gut regs regarding coal dust. Interesting how Boosh installed a corporate pig at MSHA and then all these epic mine disasters started happening. Weird.

President Obama apparently has a different idea: Let’s allow a qualified person to run MSHA.

Here’s a bit from the bio offered when Joe Main—confirmed unanimously in the Senate on Wednesday—was nominated:

…began working in coal mines in 1967 and quickly became an advocate for miners safety as a union safety committeeman as well as serving in various local union positions in the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). He was employed by the UMWA in 1974 as a Special Assistant to the International President, and joined the UMWA Safety Division in 1976, 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, managing the international health and safety program and staff.

Wait…a union guy?

One who has…testified before a congressional subcommittee regarding mine safety?

Check out these juicy quotes from when Main’s nomination was announced in July. Notice who’s happy and who’s sad.

“I don’t think Obama could have chosen anyone better for the job,” said Tony Oppegard, a Lexington, Ky., lawyer and mine-safety advocate. “Joe has done more for mine safety in the U.S. than anyone in the past 25 to 30 years.”

Oppegard said Main’s nomination “signals a change of direction in terms of mine safety in this country. It’s a 180 degree shift from the policies of the Bush administration and its favoring of coal industry executives.”

“It’s going to be frustrating having somebody with an agenda that is pro-union,” said Bill Caylor, the president of the Kentucky Coal Association. “We’re not looking forward to it.”

Caylor is right. Because the unions friggin’ love this guy.

Joe is perhaps the most knowledgeable person about mine safety and health in the nation, and his experience was gained where it counts the most—fighting every day for over 30 years on behalf of miners’ health and safety, including 22 years as the Administrator of Occupational Health and Safety for the UMWA.

I mean, heaven forefend that the head of the MINE SAFETY and HEALTH Administration should actually give a crap about SAFETY and HEALTH in the MINES. Geez. I thought a regulatory agency was just supposed to look the other way, or even to facilitate a businessman’s shoddy, money-saving shortcuts in his pursuit of the bottom line. So what if a few Joes Six-Pack lose a few fingers. Right? <./sarcasm>

Now this thing might not be exactly perfect. Main skated to confirmation, sans hearings—as did Lauriski. And, as probably the second-best journalist on the subject in the country points out, there are a few questions that could be put to the guy. Still. How the government fills this job tells you a hell of a lot about how seriously said government actually takes the task of “keeping us safe.”

I’d say we’re in pretty good hands.

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