MSHA’s Stickler: Will he stay or will he go?

As the year is winding down, one question on the minds of many MSHA inspectors, managers and staff has to be: Will Stickler be here in 2008?  The MSHA chief, Richard Stickler, received his job from President G.W. Bush on a “recess appointment,” which expires at the end of the current U.S. Senate session.  If the Senate adjourns (as it usually does) for the Christmas and New Year holidays, Mr. Stickler’s appointment would officially end.  This would leave MSHA without a politically-appointed Assistant Secretary. Would that be a good thing for miners’ health and safety?

I can’t help but recall that for nearly two years—November 2004 through October 2006—the individual in-charge at MSHA was an “acting” assistant secretary.  His name was David Dye and the most memorable thing people remember about him is when he walked out of a Senate hearing on the Sago disaster.  As the ”acting” chief, Mr. Dye behaved like a caretaker.  He seemed to expect the organization to just plug along, as if it was making widgits.  But MSHA, like its sister agency OSHA, is not about making widgits.  Its duties are not just rote tasks, but responsibilities that have real consequences for working people.

MSHA’s chief has to be a keen observers of economic trends, technological and labor force changes, and politcal dynamics.  If an “acting” assistant secretary chooses the role of mere “caretaker” (or is assigned that role by the Secretary of Labor) then the market, labor and political forces will eventually overtake the agency.  Recall too that the agency itself is in constant flux.  MSHA is in a period of dramatic transition with hundreds of employees reaching retirement age and hundreds of others now transferring directly from mining industry jobs into MSHA’s inspector training program.  The dynamics within the two—the mining industry and MSHA—-are constantly converging, making an extremely challenging environment for the head of MSHA.Nobody recognizes this phenomenon better than MSHA’s own employees.  Understandably, it’s why the “will he stay or will he go” question is on their minds. 

Mr. Stickler’s appointment period is coming to an end, but MSHA staff don’t have a clue who will be in charge of the agency in the new year.  That’s an unsettling feeling for nearly anyone when an organization is in flux, but imagine it for an MSHA employee? For the last two years, MSHA staff have investigated the deaths of 135 men, identified hundreds of inadequate mine seals, read of many new cases of black lung disease, while learning that millions of dollars of penalties have not been collected and hundreds of mines have not been inspected.  Because most individuals who work at MSHA genuinely strive to contribute to the agency’s mission, the last few years have been particularly demoralizing.  I’ve heard from some of them who say, “please just give us some stability and leadership here, so we can get back on track—inspecting mines and protecting miners.”

So, who should take the reins at MSHA when Mr. Stickler’s recess appointment expires? 

At present, MSHA has two deputy assistant secretaries, Robert Friend (a career civil servant who has talked eagerly for the last several years about retiring) and John P. Pallasch (a political appointee who was previously a special assistant in DOL’s office of administration and management.)  If either were appointed to serve as “acting” assistant secretary, I suspect that both, for different reasons, would follow a ”caretaker” role.  Would that serve miners well over the remaining 12 months of the GW Bush Administration? I don’t think so.  If we’ve learned anything over the last few years with respect to miners’ health and safety, it is that the U.S. is far behind where it should be with respect to protecting workers from injuries, illnesses and deaths on-the-job.  I say “no thanks” to a caretaker at MSHA for the next year.

No doubt, there’s been a shadow over Mr. Stickler’s tenure since his nomination in August 2005 by President Bush, his confirmation hearing in January 2006, and his recess appointment in October 2006.  After this summer’s Crandall Canyon disaster, in which nine men lost their lives, critics renewed their calls for Stickler’s ouster.  Yet, when MSHA’s mistakes and missteps have been exposed, it has been Mr. Stickler we can point the finger at and ask for answers.  As the politically-appointed head of MSHA, he’s the one in the history books who is held accountable.  I’d much rather have someone in charge of MSHA that believes he is accountable to miners and their families, than an “acting” head who has no qualms about walking out on U.S. Senators. 

To his credit, Mr. Stickler has made a lot of commitments over the last few months to straighten things out at the agency.  He’s instituted a program to put “bad-actor” mine operators on notice (i.e.,pattern of violations), he established an office of accountability and the 100 percent plan to ensure all inspections are completed.  Perhaps he’s also learned some harsh lessons about his agency’s culture and the performance of his top staff.  The learning curve is steeper than most people realize. 

With only one year left in the G.W. Bush Administration, it would be wise to keep Mr. Stickler on board at MSHA.  We should expect that he’s learned from his mistakes and demand that he make good on his promises.  

==Note: The whole time I was writing this post, the Clash’s lyrics ”Should I stay or should I go?” and head-banging tune kept popping in my head.

Celeste Monforton, MPH is a senior research associate and lecturer in the Dept of Environmental and Occupational Health at The George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services.  She was a career federal employee at OSHA (1991-1995) and MSHA (1996-2001).