Imagine being an MSHA inspector and being asked by independent investigators for your honest and frank opinion about the events surrounding the August 2007 disaster at the Crandall Canyon mine, which took the lives of nine men.  You decide to participate because you genuinely believe in MSHA’s mission—enforcing safety and health laws to protect miners’ lives—and hope that your insight will help to improve the agency’s ability to do just that. 

Imagine now a sucker-punch in your gut as you learn that the transcript of your confidential interview has been read by your boss’ boss’ boss, Asst. Secretary Richard Stickler.  Worse yet, it was hand-delivered to him on a platter by Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao.  Holy shit!! 

After 8 years of Chao’s Labor Department disrespecting the nation’s workers, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that they treat their own workers no better.   The Salt Lake Tribune’s Mike Gorrell writes in “Crandall retaliation feared: mining boss gets OK to read worker interviews” that MSHA’s chief Richard Stickler received permission a few weeks ago to review the transcripts of inteviews with MSHA employes who agreed to participate in an independent investigation of the Crandall Canyon disaster conducted by retired MSHA officials Joe Pavlovich and Earnest Teaster.

Gorrell reports:

“An author of a report critical of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s role in last August’s Crandall Canyon mine disaster said Saturday he fears agency personnel could face retaliation for participating in the probe because the Labor Department gave MSHA boss Richard Stickler access to transcripts of their interviews.  Earnest Teaster Jr., an MSHA retiree retained by Labor Secretary Elaine Chao to conduct an ‘independent’ review of MSHA’s activities before and during the disaster, said he learned Friday that Stickler had received authorization several weeks ago to review transcripts Teaster considered confidential.”

“A Labor Department spokesman defended the authorization on Saturday, saying the information would improve MSHA and that no agency employees have suffered any retribution for opening up to investigators.”

What a crock!  How in the world would this spokesman know if any of the 59 MSHA employees are now being treated adversely by Stickler or his cronies?  

Moreover, Chao and company will be heading out the door in four months (not soon enough) and there’s NOTHING, absolutely NOTHING that they could be doing with those transcripts to “improve MSHA” in that time period.  There’s only one thing that Mr. Stickler wanted from those transcripts: to read WHO said WHAT about him.  Period.  End of story.   

As Gorrell notes in his story, Pavlovich and Teaster’s report

“…contained some unflattering portrayals of Stickler’s performance during the ill-fated rescue effort in which three miners died, including an MSHA inspector.  It quoted inspectors saying Stickler was unapproachable and ‘just didn’t seem like he wanted to be talked to,’ and that he threatened to fire them or send them home if they could not record measurements about the rescue advance the way he wanted them.”

“One MSHA employee stated ‘everybody got fired there at least once.’ Another MSHA employee stated that Stickler threatened to ‘fire us all. It wasn’t just me. It was fire us all and get more players, if we couldn’t get it in that book the way he wanted it.’ Still another MSHA employee said ‘I tried to give any explanation to [Stickler] as to why we’re down or they had a bounce. He said very specifically ‘I don’t want to hear that. I want to know how far they’ve advanced and what the footage on the props is.’”

“Teaster said Saturday he could not speculate on Stickler’s motivation for wanting access to witness transcripts, but he is certain that future investigations will be hampered severely by this type of disclosure.  ‘I want to maintain the protection of these individuals. They said things we don’t think Mr. Stickler should have access to.  Once he gets out of government, it’s different. But I don’t think it’s appropriate for him, being the head of the agency, to find out who said what about him.’”

“Labor Department spokesman David James responded that ‘we have no reason or intention to take adverse action against employees who cooperated with Mr. Teaster, and any thinking to the contrary is not based on any fact . . . It’s Mr. Teaster’s opinion.’  He said the report by Teaster and Pavlovich belongs to the department, ‘and there’s no prohibition in any statute or law that would prohibit us from disseminating that information, especially if it comes to the betterment of the agency.’”

Ee-gads! when are these people going to crawl back into the holes they came from?  

How much more damage will they do over the next four months?  The thought frightens me. 

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Celeste Monforton, MPH, DrPH is with the Project on Scientific Knowledge and Public Policy at The George Washington University School of Public Health.  She worked at OSHA (1991-1995) and MSHA (1996-2001) and wonders if she would recognize the agencies if she were to return to public service.

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