Down on Main Street

Therese Dunphy

August 1, 2009

by Therese Dunphy, Editor-in-Chief


Much of the last year has been spent talking about Wall Street, but this month, another challenge faces the aggregates industry — Main Street. To be specific, the industry’s greatest challenge in 2010 may come from President Obama’s nomination of Joseph A. Main as the next administrator for the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

If his nomination is approved, Main will step into the role with experience as a coal-mine safety advocate and as a former administrator for the Department of Occupational Health and Safety for the United Mine Workers of America. Clues to his regulatory outlook may be found in testimony he gave on behalf of that group in 2000. On Sept. 14, he chronicled the impact of the Mine Act on miner safety. “Miners, like any other workers, look forward to completing their working life in good health. They deserve to have that opportunity,” he said. “Miners rely on government intervention and actions to bring that about.”

Throughout his tough talk, he highlighted health-related issues such as diesel particulate emissions and silica exposure, and noted, “To bring about change, Congress abandoned the notion that voluntary compliance by the mining industry would result in the needed improvements when they enacted the 1969 Mine Act. They understood that sound regulations, stringently enforced, were necessary if death, injuries, and illnesses were to be curbed in the nation’s mines. They also rightfully determined that stiff penalties for miner operators who resisted the law were necessary to bring about compliance.”

A couple years later, he pointed the finger at MSHA-head Dave Lauriski and blamed MSHA management for the Jim Walter Resources tragedy. He said that the agency “has backed off enforcement of health and safety laws.” The agency, he said, was too cozy with industry.

I sincerely hope that Main backs off the rhetoric he has shared in the past and, if confirmed, approaches the position not as a former union rep, but as a leader interested in improving safety. That’s an approach all parties can agree on.

A single-minded cite-and-fine approach toward safety is not only impractical, it’s potentially catastrophic. Ken Simonson, chief economist for The Associated General Contractors of America, recently reported that some states across the nation have lost as many as 19 to 28 percent of their construction-related jobs. In the current economic environment, many aggregates companies may not be able to withstand such old-school tactics to modern safety issues.

Through this nomination, President Obama is sending a strong message that he stands behind organized labor. I’m sure that some employed construction workers appreciate the sentiment, but would also appreciate the administration’s focus on keeping them employed.

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