Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Confirmation Hearings on MSHA and OSHA Heads

The Senate Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a confirmation hearing yesterday on the appointments of Ed Foulke as head of OSHA and Richard Stickler as head of MSHA.

Because of the vote on the Supreme Court appointment of Sam Alito, both nominees appeared on the same panel, a gift to Foulke who received many fewer questions than Stickler in the aftermath of the never-ending fatalities in American mines.

Foulke, an attorney for union-busting South Carolina lawfirm of Jackson Lewis is the consumate politician. He knew exactly what committee chairman Enzi wanted to hear when asked what he thought OSHA's biggest challenge is:
“getting information and tools to small employers without the resources and personnel” to create and maintain a workplace safety plan. These employers, in particular, need outreach education and effective guidance on how to comply with the standards that apply to them, he said.
Right. Almost 6,000 American workers killed in the workplace each year, rising fatalities among immigrant workers, 30 year old chemical standards, workers killed every week in easily preventable trench collapses and falls, 15 workers killed in a BP Amoco refiner blast earlier this year, fines and penalties that make it hardly sensible to fix workplace safety problems, and OSHA's biggest challenge is "getting tools to small employers?"

Yeah, only if the chairman of your confirmation committee has just introduced a grab-bag of laws designed to "ease the burden" on small employers.

Foulke also has a rather warped view of the role of enforcement:
“We need mandatory and voluntary programs,” Foulke said. “We need to enforce, and we need compliance outreach. Enforcement is after the fact. The goal is to prevent injuries.”
First, Ed, enforcement is only "after the fact" if you wait until "after the fact." Someone should let him know that it's also possible to enforce the law before workers are killed. And large fines, along with criminal prosecutions and prison terms could also be an incentive that might encourage employers to prevent injuries and fatalities before the fact.


And it was clear from Stickler's testimony that his nomination had been made in the long distant past when no one cared much about mine safety or had even heard of MSHA. When asked by Senator Hillary Clinton whether he would promise swift action on suggested mine safety reforms, all he could manage in response was “I will study [the proposals]....If some are justified and need to be advanced, I’ll do that.”

The Senators were not impressed:

“That seems like a fine answer,” Clinton said, “but with the evidence that changes need to be made—from congressional and independent studies—it’s troubling that we’re going to be studying more.”

“With recent events, ‘study’ is not reassuring,” [Senator Edward] Kennedy said.

Although it wasn't discussed at the hearing, Stickler is coming under fire for his performance as Director of Deep Mine Safety in Pennsylvania, as described in Occupational Hazards magazine:
Stickler was in charge of the bureau at the time of the Quecreek Mine flood in 2002, which trapped nine miners and nearly cost them their lives. In its final report issued Aug. 12, 2003, MSHA found that the primary cause of the water inundation into the mine was the use of an undated and uncertified mine map of the adjacent, water-filled Harrison No. 2 mine that did not show the complete and final mine workings. Using this map led to inaccurate depiction of the location of the Harrison No. 2 mine workings on the Quecreek No. 1 mine map required by MSHA and on the certified mine map submitted to Pennsylvania in the permitting process.

The root cause of the incident was the unavailability of a certified, final mine map for Harrison No. 2 in the state's mine map repository.

Black Wolf Coal Co., Musser Engineering Inc. and PBS Coals Inc. each received one citation for a violation of federal mine safety standards in using the inaccurate and outdated map. The investigators noted, "The final map may not have been available ... but other information ... would indicate that the boundaries used were questionable." The companies are contesting the citations.

Stickler, who received a gubernatorial award for his work on the scene at the Quecreek Mine flood, at the time urged Pennsylvania mine operators to update their maps so another tragedy like the Quecreek Mine flood could be avoided. His actions were too little too late for some critics, who point out that in the year following the Quecreek incident, a grand jury determined that the bureau, which had been headed by Stickler for 5 years at that point, should have noticed the mapping problems sooner.
Stickler's private sector experience wasn't much better:

Mines managed by Stickler were marked by worker injury rates that were double the national average, according to government data cited by the United Mine Workers union, also expected to make an appearance during the confirmation hearings. One of the mines he managed for 5 years had two fatalities during that time, they said.

So welcome to the Bush administration guys. I'm sure you'll both do a hell of a job.

Senator Enzi's opening statement here. Senator Kennedy's opening statement here. The committee probably won't vote on the nominations for a couple of weeks.