Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

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August 20, 2012

Joseph A. Main reflects on years as head of MSHA

BLUEFIELD — The road that Joseph A. Main has taken since his appointment more than two years ago to serve as assistant secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health has been challenging. He had only been on the job less than eight months when the worst coal mining tragedy in the past 40 years stunned the coal industry — the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in Raleigh County that claimed the lives of 29 coal miners.

“The UBB Mine explosion caused us to take a step back and look at the weaknesses in the safety net that is expected to protect the nation’s miners,” Main said of the incident that has defined his tenure of service. “MSHA’s extensive investigation of the tragedy identified a workplace culture promoted by the operator that valued production over safety, including practices that fostered and encouraged non-compliance and prevented workers from speaking out about unsafe and unhealthy conditions in the mine.”

Main was one of the keynote speakers at last week’s Bluefield Coal Symposium. Prior to Secretary Main’s speech — mostly from prepared remarks — Bill Reid, symposium chair, made it clear that Main would not take questions from the floor at the conclusion of his remarks. However, the audience included several people that Main knew by name. He displayed a relaxed familiarity with Reid and smiled as he surprisingly opened the floor up to questions.

Main’s speech took on a somber note when he talked about being in Whitesville on July 27, for the dedication of the monument to the 29 miners who died at Upper Big Branch. “It is a marker we are placing on this spot on the earth as a reminder that we can never forget that we must not let these tragedies involving the loss of miners’ lives ever happen again,” he said, recalling the remarks he made at the dedication.

Main started working in the coal mines of southwestern Pennsylvania in 1967, a year before the explosion at Consol’s No. 9 Mine near Farmington and Mannington claimed the lives of 78 coal miners — either as a result of fire, suffocation or lack of rescue. Main, who grew up in mostly rural Greene County, Pa., became an advocate for coal mine safety in his career. In 1974, he was hired by the United Mine Workers of America to serve as an assistant to (then) International President Arnold Miller, and in 1982, (then) UMWA President Rich Trumpka appointed him to serve as administrator of the unions Occupational Health and Safety Department and remained in that position for 22 years.

Prior to Main’s remarks at the symposium, some of the speakers had discussed alternatives to Main’s “Rules to Live By” approach to mine safety, and recommended other approaches. During the question-and-answer period after his presentation, Main said that he was not opposed to an open conversation about the various ideas of mine safety. “I think we ought to welcome that,” he said.

In an interview after his speech, Main said that in the two-plus years since the disaster at Upper Big Branch, he has worked most on “changing the culture in the coal mining industry,” that led to the tragedy. “It has been our intention to give (MSHA) mine inspectors (and coal miners) the tools they need to help maintain a safe work environment.”

Main said that he is aware that the steps that MSHA has taken to be more aggressive with various enforcement initiatives, has not all been welcomed by the coal industry, but he added that there is no opposition to efforts that safeguard the lives of coal miners. “We owe it to the miners to do this,” he said.

“I think we are making headway,” he said of the push for greater mine safety. “No one can really be satisfied until there are no mining fatalities or injuries,” he said.

In addition to changing the culture, Main said that the ongoing research and development on equipment like proximity detection will make coal mine environments safer in the future.

— Contact Bill Archer at barcher@bdtonline.com

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