It’s a sad fact that in the early years of the 20th century, thousands of workers died in coal mining accidents around the country. The deadliest year on record was 1907, which claimed 3,242 miners’ lives. In response to this alarming trend, Congress established the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1910, and President Taft selected Dr. Joseph A. Holmes as its first director.
Dr. Holmes, considered both an intellectual and a humanitarian, was instrumental in drawing attention to the human toll of mining disasters. He established training programs and mine safety stations in local communities, and standardized mine rescue and first-aid methods. It was fitting then, that in 1916, the Holmes Safety Association was founded to promote health and safety in our nation’s mines.
Nearly 100 years later, the organization remains committed to its original mission. Just last week, members overwhelmingly approved a major constitutional amendment and change to its bylaws, and voted to create a separate mine rescue component – the Holmes Mine Rescue Association.
This new national organization will support and provide the necessary guidance for mine rescue. It also represents the culmination of collaborative efforts by my agency, the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, and the mine safety community to address gaps in mine emergency response. While MSHA oversees all mine rescues and recoveries, we work closely with mine operators and mine rescue teams to help locate trapped and missing miners.
In the past few years MSHA has hosted a number of summits and meetings with the mine rescue community to address those gaps. A major part of our discussions has been what further actions are needed to ensure a swift and comprehensive response from government, industry and others in the event of a mine emergency.
Going forward, the Holmes Mine Rescue Association will collaborate with MSHA to work closely with the entire mine rescue community – mine operators, labor groups, state agencies and mine rescue teams – in developing best practices for mine rescue and assisting, and if needed, with coal and metal/nonmetal mine rescue contests.
It’s also worth noting that June 15 is the seventh anniversary of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act of 2006 (known as the MINER Act), which has greatly enhanced mine rescue response by improving the number, availability and quality of training of mine rescue teams.
Mine rescue is about the most dangerous and challenging rescue work undertaken in this country, and we owe it to those who volunteer for these high-risk missions the best training and support we can give them.
Joseph Main is the assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.