It has been said that occupational safety laws are written with the blood of workers who have died or been severely injured on the job. This is certainly a sad truth in the history of mine safety.
Despite continual calls for improvements in mine safety, stronger laws seem to be introduced only when miners die in large numbers. For example, when an explosion ripped through West Virginia’s Farmington # 9 Mine in 1968 killing 78 miners, public outrage over yet another senseless mine disaster led to the passage of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.
In 1976, two violent blasts occurred within days of each other, killing 15 coal miners and 11 rescue workers at Kentucky’s Scotia Mine and laying the groundwork for the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977.
Thirty years passed, a period marked by a steady decline in mining deaths across the country. Then, in 2006, three separate mine tragedies that claimed 19 lives resulted in yet another piece of landmark legislation. The Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act of 2006 was drafted in response to the tragedies at the Sago, Aracoma and Darby mines. A bipartisan group of political leaders came together with the industry and representatives of miners to craft a law built upon efforts by the Mine Safety and Health Administration, the federal enforcement agency I now oversee. The law further improved mine safety nationwide, by increasing training, upgrading mining standards, improving mine emergency response and requiring enhanced technology underground for post-disaster communications.
Now, instead of waiting until after a disaster to figure out how to respond, mine operators are required to develop and continuously update written emergency response plans. In addition, the industry must maintain a better cadre of mine rescue teams that are more available and better trained to come to the rescue of miners when needed. Also as a result of the MINER Act, miners trapped as a result of a disaster know there are refuge chambers and caches of emergency air to keep them alive while the MINER Act-mandated mine emergency plans are put into action to locate and rescue them. Requirements like these help ensure that mine operators are thinking about safety even when MSHA isn’t there.
We are finally seeing the installation of wireless or nearly wireless two-way communications and electronic tracking systems, as mandated by the MINER Act. I have no doubt that these impressive technologies would not have been developed for coal mines by the private sector had the MINER Act not adopted its aggressive technology-forcing provisions five years ago.
In the five years since enactment of the MINER Act, MSHA has implemented several provisions, policies and regulations, often ahead of schedule and beyond the requirements of the Act.
There’s no doubt that the MINER Act has contributed to a safer mining environment. Our work, however, is not done. Twenty-nine miners died last year at the Upper Big Branch mine. In the intervening months, MSHA has been using all of our tools to get the most recalcitrant mine operators to live up to their responsibility to operate safe mines. We have learned, however, that we do not have all the tools we need. Some of our impact inspections where we capture the mine phones and expose mine operators ignoring the law make it clear that we need more tools through legislation that deal with these operations. We stand ready to work with Congress to craft new legislation and ensure the safety of all our nation’s miners.
Joseph Main is the assistant secretary for mine safety and health.