Reactions to Joe Main confirmation at MSHA

October 22, 2009 by Ken Ward Jr.

joe-main-008a.jpgSome reactions coming in today to last evening’s U.S. Senate vote to confirm former United Mine Workers of America safety and health director Joe Main as assistant secretary of labor in charge of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Main’s old boss, UMWA President Cecil Roberts issued this statement:

We congratulate Joe Main on the U.S. Senate’s unanimous confirmation of him last night as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health. We sincerely believe that Joe’s long experience as an advocate for miners’ health and safety on the job will bring a refreshing change to an agency that for too long has favored production over strong enforcement of workplace safety and health in America’s mines.

The UMWA will continue to be the primary advocate for miners’ health and safety. We understand that Joe has many challenges confronting him as he takes the helm, not least of which will be suspicion and confrontation from mine operators who are not used to vigorous enforcement of the law.

Nothing can replace careful attention to strong safety and health practices in the workplace by both miners and management every day on the job to ensure that miners’ lives and limbs are not put at risk. But with such strong and outspoken advocates of workplace health and safety as Joe Main, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and President Obama on the side of working miners, we believe that those operators who in the past have chosen to put increased production ahead of miners’ health and safety will no longer be allowed to get away with it.

That is what miners have a right to expect from government watchdog agencies like MSHA. We will be working to make sure that is what they get from MSHA.

Congressman George Miller, chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said:

I congratulate Joe Main’s unanimous Senate confirmation as the next head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.  Main will be a tireless advocate for the health and safety of America’s miners and will bring a needed jumpstart to an agency that suffered from years of neglect. I look forward to working with him to ensure that our nation’s miners return home to their loved ones safely at the end of each shift.

Interestingly, the National Mining Associated issued a statement today outlining a speech that their top safety official, Bruce Watzman, delivered at an industry meeting in Pittsburgh. Here’s what the statement said:

 Pittsburgh, Pa. – A mining safety professional today highlighted new federal data underscoring the improved safety performance achieved thus far this year by the nation’s mines.

“U.S. mining’s annual safety record to date surpasses its record for all previous years at this point,” said Bruce Watzman, senior vice president for regulatory affairs at the National Mining Association (NMA). “Our record for lost time accidents underscores the strong commitment coal and mineral mining companies have made to improving mine safety,” he said.

Speaking at the 2009 joint meeting of the Pittsburgh Coal Mining Institute and Society for Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration, Watzman said data collected through the third quarter by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) show total U.S. mining fatalities are fewer than at the comparable period in 2008, the industry’s record year for mine safety.

Moreover, said Watzman, coal mining’s safety record to date is on pace to make 2009 the third consecutive year of steadily declining fatalities in the nation’s coal mines. Through 2008, coal mining’s fatality rate had fallen 40 percent from the 2000 level.

“U.S. mining has returned to our trend of steadily improving safety performance,” said Watzman. “We won’t be content until we achieve our ultimate goal of zero fatalities.”

For all U.S. mining, including coal, minerals and metals, federal data show that since 2002 the rate of fatal injuries has declined by 13 percent and the rate of non-fatal injuries has declined by 26 percent.

Watzman noted the abundance and affordability of coal ensures it will be an important, even vital, part of the nation’s energy mix for decades to come. That is especially good news for Pennsylvania, he said. The commonwealth ranks fourth in the nation in coal production, valued at $2.5 billion in 2008. More than 21,000 Pennsylvanians are employed directly by coal mining, with wages that are 30 percent higher than the average wage for all industries in the state.

27 Responses to “Reactions to Joe Main confirmation at MSHA”

  1. Delegate Mike Caputo says:

    I have known Joe Main for 25+ years. His only agenda is to protect the health and safety of miners. He has done that most of his adult life. MSHA now has someone who will put safety first. Miners all across this country will have a much better chance of coming home to their family at the end of the shift, with Joe Main leading the agency. FINALLY, SOMEONE WHO WILL PUT SAFETY BEFORE PROFITS! What a refreshing change that will be.

  2. Bill Dunaway says:

    What a wonderful thing! Miners finally have a friend looking out for their wellbeing!

  3. David Bienkoski says:

    It’s been a long time coming, finally someone to protect the rights of miners. And someone that knows , ” the first priority and concern of all in the coal or other mining industry must be the health and safety of its most precious resource–the miner.”

  4. Mark Dorsey says:

    What a great day for COAL MINERS. Joe will make coal companys follow the law. Coal profits will no longer take the place of safety. He will make sure we have the best chance of coming home every day.

  5. Rae Davis says:

    I am very proud to see the confirmation of Joe Main come to fruition. His record for putting people first speaks for itself. I am also very proud that the nations mines have the lowest incident rates in years. The agency has been overseen by Michael Davis for the last 10 months and I am glad that his hard work and dedication to the health and safety of the nations miners has paid off. The new Msha team along with the cooperation of miners and management will be unstoppable. The nations miners should celebrate and be proud!!!

  6. Scott 14 says:

    I congradulate Mr Main and wish him well in his new job. I certainly disagree with Degelate Caputo that past MSHA directors have put profits before safety. This Degelate is a slur against hard working MSHA inspectors in the field. They have a very difficult job and should be thanked by all. In the end safety is a personal value and no agency or union will change that. Whos responsable for your personal safety. YOU ARE

  7. Ken Ward Jr. says:

    Scott 14,

    Delegate Caputo didn’t say anything about MSHA inspectors that suggests a slur against them … rather, he pointed to previous MSHA managers who he believes put profits ahead of safety.

    There’s plenty of evidence that strong enforcement was not a top priority during the Bush administration at MSHA … take a look, for example, at the independent review of MSHA’s handling of things at Crandall Canyon,

    It spells out pretty clearly ways in which MSHA’s management decisions actually made it much more difficult for the inspectors you praise to do what you correctly point out is a very, very difficult job.

    It’s worth pointing out that after every major disaster in coal mining in recent years, internal reviews have found lots of mistakes by MSHA. I did a story about those reviews, and it’s available here:

    As for who is responsible for safety in the mines … Congress actually wrote the Mine Act to be a “strict liability” law, meaning that the mine operators is responsible for all safety violations. Congress clearly intended to put the burden on mine operators to ensure safety in the mines.


  8. Nanette says:

    I am glad that finally a person who will really look out for the safety and well being of the miners has been confirmed. For far too long people who were not there for the best interest of the miners were over MSHA. A new day has dawned and people should be relieved to have such a man as Joe Main over MSHA.

  9. […] I read the comments on Ken Ward’s Coal Tattoo post, “Reactions to Joe Main confirmation at MSHA”, I see that many commenters are confident that the newly confirmed head of MSHA will put […]

  10. Doug Gibson says:

    Congratulations Joe! You will be a literal breath of fresh air to coal miners nationwide. The President has chosen wisely. Not many care as much as Joe that miners return home to their families safe and sound. Joe brings years of firsthand experience to the table and miners who don’t belong to the UMWA will now get to see how someone who genuinly cares about their health and safety can try and enact positive change within MSHA’s cope of authority. All these fly-by-night, renegade operators best be on alert. There’s a new sheriff in town!

  11. Casey says:

    I agree that the law makes the mine operators responsible for violations. But Scott also makes a good point. The mining safety laws are extremely important for safety and are especially important for the prevention of major mining disasters.

    The industry has made great strides in preventing major disasters but there definitely still have been some for a variety of reasons. I think Scott’s point is that80-90% of injuries in mines occur from individuals performing an unsafe act. Operators spend a considerable time encouraging miners to eliminate their unsafe acts as well as compliance with laws. But for the prevention of the majority of injuries, personal responsibility is required. Mining companies have to create the environment and provide the education to allow miners to make safe decisions. MSHA is stuck with enforcing law.

  12. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    As you may know, I spent six months in 2006 examining MSHA reports on mining deaths. The clear conclusion from that was that 90 percent of mining deaths occur because the mine operator violated the law.

    Here’s the link for the lead story in the series I produced based on that reporting (which was funded by the Alicia Patterson Foundation through a fellowship):

    Now, some may argue that in some of those instances — a miner working under unsupported roof, for instance — a worker put himself into a dangerous position.

    While that may be true, it’s also apparent that coal miners have a very tough job — there is tremendous pressure to move coal at the expense of anything else. Some of that pressure is overt, and some of it is less subtle. You’re right that mining companies have to create the environment to allow miners to work safely.

    My own conclusion after reading hundreds of death reports is that mine operators have a long way to go in that regard.


  13. Butch Oldham says:

    I know Joe Main will be a great person heading up MSHA. The reason I know and truly believe that he will look after miners safety is that he has been doing this all his life therefore it comes naturally to him and I witnessed it first hand at the disasters that we worked at together over the last twenty years that I worked for him as a U.M.W.A. Safety Rep. There is no other person in my opinion that will work longer and harder for mine safety than this man and he has a record to prove it. ” Good Luck Joe”

  14. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    This statement just in from Joe Main’s PR office …

    “I am honored to have been appointed by President Obama to serve under Labor Secretary Hilda L. Solis as the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. I am looking forward to the opportunity to work with the mining community to carry out the mission of protecting the safety and health of our nation’s miners.”

  15. Donnie Samms says:

    Joe is the one person who has spent his whole life to make our mines safe. For many years he spent time away from his family fighting for the saftey of coal miners, joe will work 24 hrs a day 7 days a week if that what it takes to get emsha back to working for the workers and not the coal companies. God Bless Pres. obama for giving Joe this oppurtunity. God Bless Pres. Roberts for submitting joes name for consideration. And finally God Bless the UNITED MINE WORKERS OF AMERICA. WHAT A GREAT DAY IN AMERICA.

  16. Casey says:

    My 80-90% number referred to injuries not deaths. You certainly have done an exhaustive study on this material. But I will say that in my opinion MSHA will write violations when an injury or death occurs that may look like the cause but personal choices made are the real root cause. Either that or a series of events occurring that includes an unsafe act by an individual.

    Granted that there is always pressure for production but I have never seen an environment that put that above safety. Besides the moral, legal and ethical reasons, injuries are expensive. Plus foremen can risk their careers from unwarrantable failures.

    I agree that there have been, and still are operators, or even supervisors within excellent companies, that may put safety second. With all the legal changes made after the 2006 events, these operators are or will be going away. The best defense against injuries is to design the process or re-engineer the equipment so unsafe acts can’t occur by miners. I think it’s similar to highway accidents- you can’t blame the car or road for most of the wrecks. Just my opinion.

  17. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    I appreciate your response.

    Of course, there are mine operators who have gone to jail for willfully ignoring safety rules and getting miners killed — Perhaps you have never seen that sort of action. But it certainly has occurred.

    Also, just as I would expect you to ask for sources of my information — what is the data (a published study, MSHA statistics, etc.) to support your 80 to 90 percent figure, or to support your contention that MSHA cites operators when it’s really the miner’s fault?

    I’m not saying that data doesn’t exist. If it does, I’ll like to see it, though.


  18. Bill Smerka says:

    It is a new day for UMWA coal miners, Joe is the right man for the job.The hard work the UMWA did @ election time is paying off !!! We have a Union man @ MSHA and he will put our safety first!!! That’s Great !!! Thank you Pres. Roberts.And Pres Obama

  19. John Mercer says:

    I’m glad to see a coal miner get the job. Coal miners have a friend at the top that will do what’s right. Joe has been fighting for safety all his life. He’s got a job ahead of him.
    Good luck and GOD bless Joe. UMWA Miner and proud of it.

  20. Casey says:


    I am not sure that I have the proof for my statement. Perhaps it came from company safety departments. Maybe a safety professional could provide the data. But I will e-mail you my experience that would seem to verify the claim. Thanks.

  21. Old Coal Miner says:

    I know you will see fewer accidents and fatalities in the mining industry. You see the EPA won’t approve any new permits. Then we will use cap and trade to eliminate CO2 and we won’t burn coal anymore. Then we have Mr. Main to protect those left to try and mine coal. This nation is heading for a depression. Were shutting down the WV coal industry. Does anyone know how Wyoming leads the nation in coal production? Does anyone protest their mining methods? No or if they do we don’t hear about it here in the mountains. Our current administration is shutting down the entire WV mining industry. I hope everyone enjoys the rising price of electricity and steel.

  22. joe reynolds says:

    Last year I and a lot of other union adovactes worked very hard to gert Barack Obama elected. We are now seeing the furits of our labor. With Joe Main directing MSHA ,the fox is no longer guarding the hen house. With the implimentation of the new S MinerAct deaths have been reduced -dramatically and with Joe Main at the helm of MSHA I know that the mines will be safer and there will be fewer deaths and injuries. Go Joe Go.

  23. K.M. says:

    Hi Ken, I am hoping that you can help me. We are being told that MSHA inspectors go to jail if they don’t write tickets. However, we have only heard about one actual case, and that inspector had loaded guns in the trunk of his car. Do you know of any other cases?

  24. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    I have no idea what you’re talking about. There’s no law against MSHA inspectors not issuing citations or orders. Of course, they generally are supposed to write what they see.

    If you could provide more information, and the source of your information, perhaps I could help.


  25. […] death nationwide so far in 2009. It is the first since former United Mine Workers safety director Joe Main was confirmed last week as President Obama’s assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and […]

  26. […] safety advocates have high hopes — and high expectations — for Main, the former longtime mine safety and health director for the United Mine Workers […]

  27. A. Glenn says:

    Joe Main will continue the crippling of the US coal industry, especially UG. I have spent many years in safety at union operations and I can attest the MSHA does more to hinder proactive safety initiatives than they do “preventing” injuries. Main will simply put the UMWA agenda ahead of reasonable, productive initiatives b/c, simply put, he owes the UMWA. Likewise, Obama would not have dared nominate a pro-industry AS due to to the same fact…he got elected with union money and he has to pay back the piper. I feel that if the US mining industry would de-regulate to some degree (not too much), comparable to Australia’s model, we would see astronomical improvements in health, safety, and productivity. Furthermore, the Mine Act of 77 is actually the least constitutional document in the US govt by enacting the executive branch to create law (thereby removing that responsibility from Congress). I am not anti-Mine Act, from an con law perspective it is anti-Old Ironsides.

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