David Zatezalo, a former coal mining executive from West Virginia, will be President Trump’s nominee for assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, the White House announced on Saturday in a long list of nominee announcements. In that role, he will head up the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). 

Mr. Zatezalo appears to have a long career of experience in mining, and has seen the industry from both the union and management sides. According to the biography released by the White House, he began mining in 1974 as a union miner. He then rose through the ranks at various companies to work as a foreman, superintendent, vice president of operations, and CEO, among other positions.

Over his career, he worked for Consolidation Coal Company, Southern Ohio Coal Company, and Windsor Coal Company. Most recently, between 2007 and 2014, Zatezalo served in a number of roles at Rhino Resources, including as its president, CEO, and COO. He is a past chairman of the Ohio Coal Association and member of Mine Rescue Veterans of Pittsburgh.

Zatezalo is both a mining engineer and professional engineer. He received his mining engineering degree from West Virginia University. He also has an MBA from Ohio University.

A new chief for new directions at MSHA?

If confirmed, he will be taking the reins at MSHA at a time of potential transition. While mining history over the last couple decades was punctuated by occasional tragic accidents, overall, mining has become dramatically safer in the last 40 years since MSHA was created. Indeed, in 2015, mining had far fewer deaths (29) than many other industries, including truck driving (745), private construction (937), manufacturing (353), and retail (272). In 2015, twice as many people (58) died working in food and beverage stores as in mines.

Nonetheless, the Obama administration earned a reputation for taking an aggressive enforcement and rulemaking posture, which many in industry felt was unjustified. In addition, many MSHA regulations and policies are decades out of date.

Meanwhile, the economics of the industry have changed significantly in recent years, too, with coal production and sales down, in particular. But, MSHA’s enforcement resources have not yet adjusted. Its attempts to keep coal inspectors and managers occupied by sending them to inspect unfamiliar metal/non-metal mines have led to confusion, misapplication of standards, litigation, and frustration. No doubt, questions for Mr. Zatezalo at confirmation hearings and beyond will focus on his vision for how to take MSHA into its next stage given these new realities.