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Paths to making a difference in government - Joseph Main - EY - United States

Paths to making a difference

Joseph Main

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It was my 40-year history with mine safety that equipped me for both the incident and the investigation after it was over.

EY - Joseph Main

Mr. Main was nominated by President Obama as Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health (MSHA) in July 2009 and was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in October 2009.

The challenge

Joe Main faced two sets of challenges at the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

  • The first set was fulfilling an ambitious mandate with limited resources, working with Congress to update and fine-tune existing legislation, and working with the regulated industry to develop initiatives.
  • The second was focused on the Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine explosion on April 2010 in Raleigh County, West Virginia, in which 29 miners were killed. This challenge involved both responding to intense Congressional and media interest in the explosion and conducting an agency investigation into the tragedy.

Responding to the challenge

There were several project-specific challenges contained within the first challenge of fulfilling a mandate with limited resources.

For example, Main had to reform the Black Lung Disease Program.

"I quickly developed a three-pronged approach to our black lung program. The first prong is education and outreach, the second prong is beefing up enforcement, and the third prong is revising the current law," said Main.

Additionally, Main wanted to reduce the number of coal mining fatalities.

"We have too many mining deaths. So we again implemented a multifaceted program: an education program and a new compliance plan with enhanced enforcement," he said.

Finally, Main identified that a major problem facing the agency was the backlog in the agency penalty system.

"I discussed with Congress shortcomings in the violations appeal process. We are adding additional resources so that we can hire judges, lawyers and administrative support. We also launched a 90-day pilot program to test out new ways to reduce the backlog of contested citations."

Main responded to the second challenge, the Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, by drawing on his past experiences.

"I've lived through these experiences before, so I knew what to expect. It is important to manage all the different groups involved with mine explosion. My experiences earlier in my career were crucial. It was my 40-year history with mine safety that equipped me for both the incident and the investigation after it was over."

After the incident, the agency's investigation found that it hadn't properly identified problems with the mine.

"We did find that there was a computer error in the pattern of violations software. Upper Big Branch had a pattern of violations that we had not caught up with. We clearly had to improve our pattern of violations procedures which date back to 1977."

Main is proud of his work, despite the challenges.

"The job is tougher than I thought. It's been crisis after crisis. You constantly ask yourself 'How did this happen?' You have to find the confidence in yourself."

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