I'm not sure if anyone is reading this who matters, but after the deaths yesterday of five more coal miners, bringing this year's total to 31, it is clear to me that Richard Stickler's name should be withdrawn as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health.
I'm not saying that Richard Stickler is a bad person, or even that he doesn't care about the health and safety of mineworkers. In fact, let's assume that Richard Stickler is sincerely interested in improving the safety of American miners and has every intention of turning MSHA around. The fact is that he is clearly unsuited for this job, and I'm not basing this only on the fact that Stickler is yet another in a long line of Bush administration industry foxes that have been appointed to guard this country's henhouses.
The job of leading one of this country's workplace safety and health agencies is much more than just having good intentions and some safety experience in the industry. Moving the health and safety agenda forward requires fighting tough political battles on several fronts. The most obvious is the battle against those companies who seek to shortcut safety in order to maximize production, particularly when coal prices are at their highest level in 20 years.
It took this country over 200 years to figure out that leaving workplace safety in the hands of employers did not ensure safe working conditions. This lesson was ignored when George Bush came into office, but it's been painfully re-emphasized since January. Even with the best of intentions, the person who heads MSHA needs a healthy sense of skepticism, a clear sense of right and wrong and strong character in order to deal with what former mine safety official Tony Oppegard calls "the greed or indifference of mine operators." Most of all he or she needs to be independent of the companies that MSHA regulates.
Issuing unpopular and costly regulations and enforcing the law against the good buddies with whom you've spent your entire career is not easy even for the strongest, most principled individuals. Richard Stickler has given us no reason to believe that he has the strength, independence or character to do the job.
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