On Nov. 20, 1968, an explosion ripped through the Farmington No. 9 Mine in West Virginia, leaving 78 miners dead. There was sorrow and outrage as the toll reverberated through America’s mining communities. One year later, Congress passed the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.
But that law didn’t protect miners at metal/nonmetal operations. On May 2, 1972, a fire engulfed the Sunshine Mine in Idaho − a silver mine. Smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning killed 91 miners.
And in March of 1976, two violent blasts shattered the Scotia Mine in Kentucky within days of each other, killing 26. This included 11 mine inspectors and rescue workers who had arrived to investigate the first explosion at the coal mine.
At that moment in history, it was clear to lawmakers and the public that stronger protections for all miners were needed, leading to the passage of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977.
The law – which went into effect 35 years ago on March 9, 1978 – transferred the Interior Department’s Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration to the Labor Department, creating today’s Mine Safety and Health Administration.
At MSHA, we commemorate the act’s anniversary because it spurred dramatic changes that improved miners’ safety and health. I know, because I began working in coal mines in 1967. The statistics show the dramatic difference: In 1977, there were 273 mining fatalities in the United States. Last year, that number was 35.
Among other provisions, the landmark legislation:
- Protected metal/nonmetal miners through mandated inspections: four times per year at underground mines and twice per year at surface mines.
- Ensured compensation during periods when a mine is idled because of a withdrawal order (which temporarily ceases production) issued by MSHA.
- Enhanced antidiscrimination provisions and, for the first time, provided miners an opportunity for temporary reinstatement to their jobs while pursuing complaints.
- Required mine operators to provide training for new miners and newly hired experienced miners, as well as annual safety retraining of miners.
- Created effective enforcement tools that allow MSHA to address chronic violators (those mine operators who establish a “pattern of violations” of mandatory safety or health standards).
- Placed an increased emphasis on protecting the health of miners to ensure that they do not suffer material impairment due to exposure to toxic substances and harmful physical agents in mine atmospheres.
Listen: Rep. George Miller of California talks about the act’s impact.
While the act made a tremendous difference, there is always room for improvement. Unsafe conditions and discrimination still exist. Last year, MSHA filed 46 temporary reinstatement requests – the most in our history – on behalf of miners who were fired or disciplined as the result of reporting unsafe conditions. Workers are vigorously exercising their rights, and we’re stepping up our efforts to protect them.
MSHA’s enhanced enforcement initiatives, such as the monthly impact inspections of problem mines and pattern of violation notifications, are making a positive difference. We’ve seen mine operators’ compliance improve since we initiated impact inspections nearly three years ago.
The anniversary of the act and MSHA coincides with another significant milestone: the U.S. Department of Labor’s centennial. The department has been working to promote and advance the interests of workers, their families, job seekers and retirees for the past 100 years. MSHA has been working for 35 years to protect the welfare of our nation’s miners, and we will keep working so that they can return home to their families after every shift.
Joe Main is the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.