MSHA and the aggregate industry

By |  April 3, 2017

Mike Johnson

As aggregate producers await the selection of the next assistant secretary of labor at the Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA), industry stakeholders continue to lobby the Trump administration for candidates who would best represent their interests within the agency.

The National Stone, Sand & Gravel Association (NSSGA) is among the organizations rallying the administration to select an individual from the aggregate industry for the open assistant secretary position.

In an exclusive interview with Pit & Quarry, Mike Johnson, the president and CEO at NSSGA, weighed in on NSSGA’s involvement in the selection process for the MSHA post. Johnson also explored the difference in approach he’s experienced between the Trump and Obama administrations, as well as the evolution of the aggregate industry’s relationship with MSHA in recent years.

P&Q: What qualities would NSSGA like to see in the next assistant secretary of labor at MSHA?

Johnson: First and foremost, safety is the top priority for aggregates operations and we’d like to see somebody at the head of MSHA, our primary regulator, who shares our commitment to reducing injuries.

Over the last several years, we’ve frankly dealt with and pushed back on a lot of regulation created for regulation’s sake. We’d like to see MSHA’s metal/nonmetal section managed with a better eye for today’s realities, not those of the 1970s.  We are in favor of smart regulation that builds on our long commitment of improving safety because MSHA’s goals are our goals – the safety of the people who work in this industry.

We don’t think there’s anything more important than employees going home to their families every night, but according to statistics, there are higher safety risks in retail stores than quarries. We have seen 16 straight years of declining injury rates, so we need someone running MSHA who understands this industry’s commitment to safety.

P&Q: How essential is it that the next assistant secretary has some understanding and experience with the inner workings of the aggregate industry?

Johnson: The aggregates and coal industries operate very differently, but the regulations facing our operations are usually a function of ones created to enforce coal industry regulations. The previous administrators of MSHA have had experience with the coal sector, but not aggregates. Times have evolved and there are now nearly five times as many metal/nonmetal operations as coal operations. It is time that MSHA aligns its leadership and policies to address this reality.

Making America great again starts with making America’s infrastructure great again. That’s because rocks build America, and if we’re going to produce those building blocks to improve our infrastructure and communities, we have to do it in an environment where we are squarely focused on safe operations and not burdened by overreaching regulations that do not efficiently promote safety. An administrator who truly understands our operations is better.

P&Q: What involvement has NSSGA had in the selection process for the MSHA assistant secretary of labor position? Are any candidates from within the aggregate industry possibly in line for the position?

Johnson: Advocacy is job No. 1 at NSSGA, and we worked hard leading up to the election to make sure we could advance the industry’s agenda in 2017 no matter who took the oath of office or which party controlled Congress.

Because of this, we were in a great position to work with the Trump transition team from day one to advance the best-qualified candidates who will ultimately impact each of our quarries and pits. We recognized a unique opportunity to improve MSHA with an administrator who understands the majority of quarrying operations in the country.

To your question about specific candidates from within the industry, one person who was approached multiple times by the Trump administration and transition team is Ed Elliott from the Rogers Group. Ed has built his decades-long aggregates career on safety and health. It’s obvious that the administration values real-world experience from people who truly understand the agencies they have been appointed to lead, which is good because we’ve left no stone unturned when it comes to advocating for MSHA administrator candidates who have a deep, working knowledge of aggregates.

P&Q: Here we are a few months since the election with no assistant secretary of labor for MSHA in place. Why is the selection process taking so long, and why does it historically take so long for administrations to name MSHA chiefs?

Johnson: The fact of the matter is that there are 4,000 positions each administration has to fill when they take over. [Trump] ran as a Washington, D.C. outsider, and he was, yet that means that you naturally have fewer insiders available to you if elected and it can be challenging to fill that many positions.

This Trump administration shares control of Congress with the Republican Party. But we are still talking about a sizable workforce that has to be nominated and then confirmed, and that takes time no matter who controls Congress. Joe Main was not nominated for his position until six months into President Obama’s first term, and then he wasn’t confirmed for another four months.

We continue to advocate each day for an MSHA administrator. One of the things I’m happy about with this process is that we’ve been getting calls from people within the administration for advice and input on appointees.

P&Q: While the selection of the next MSHA assistant secretary is vitally important to the well-being of the aggregate industry, how important is it that MSHA regional directors and other leaders within the agency have a good understanding and experience with our industry?

Johnson: It’s vital that not only the head of MSHA understand the aggregates industry, but so should district managers. When former MSHA metal/nonmetal administrator Neal Merrifield announced his retirement toward the end of the Obama administration, we were adamant with MSHA that his position be filled with a person who has experience with aggregates operations because of all the benefits this poses for MSHA and the industry.

P&Q: Since joining NSSGA in 2013, have you observed noticeable differences in the relationship the association has with MSHA?

Johnson: One thing NSSGA has pushed for is an improved working relationship with MSHA because we believe that it helps inform and improve enforcement and regulation. It began when I started regularly meeting with MSHA officials so that when NSSGA needed to push back on MSHA for our industry, we pushed back. When NSSGA questioned whether or not the previous administrator understood how his agency’s behavior was adversely affecting our industry, we made sure he knew.

At the same time, we gave former administrator Joe Main opportunities to speak to our industry’s leaders. He spoke to our board at every NSSGA Annual Convention and he had opportunities to talk to our MSHA-NSSGA Alliance and it gave his agency chances to partner with the industry.

The fact that my phone would ring and Joe Main was on the other end seeking input was a sign of an improved relationship. He came to understand the differences between aggregates and coal operations. That is meaningful progress. I’m proud of that progress made over three-and-a-half years, and we look forward to building on that with the Trump administration.

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