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Joseph A. Main - Assistant Secretary of Labor  for Mine Safety and Health
Celebrating 40 Years of Mine Safety and Health
The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969
Public Law 91-173
91st Congress, S. 2917
Signed December 30, 1969

Congress declares that--
    (a) the first priority and concern of all in the coal mining industry must be the health and safety of its most precious resource--the miner . . . .;

With this column, I want to note a very important anniversary in mine safety and health. This year we will celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 , known as the Coal Act. Signed on December 30, 1969, this law represents a watershed moment in the improvement of occupational health and safety in the United States. It was the precursor to the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, which created MSHA, and it was the basis of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) of 1970. The Coal Act forever transformed occupational safety and health in the United States.

The Coal Mine Act was born out of a terrible disaster that took place on November 20, 1968, at Consolidation Coal's No. 9 mine in Farmington, WV. That catastrophe, which took the lives of 78 miners, profoundly changed mine safety and health in the United States. The lives that were shattered, the lives that were lost, the grief of the families, the community and the nation - all of those coalesced into the will and the strength and the determination to do something so that terrible tragedies like that would not happen again.

One month after the Farmington disaster, the U.S. Department of the Interior, which was the parent department of the Bureau of Mines, held a conference on mine safety. The Secretary of the Interior specifically mentioned Farmington in his speech, declaring, "Let me assure you, the people of this country no longer will accept the disgraceful health and safety record that has characterized this major industry."

And the country responded to this call. The Congress responded to this call. And out of this terrible tragedy, the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 was enacted by Congress and signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon on December 30, 1969.

The Coal Mine Act instituted the strongest and most comprehensive occupational safety and health protections that had ever been enacted in the U.S. It greatly increased the government's enforcement powers in coal mines, both underground and surface. It mandated four annual inspections for underground mines, instituted mandatory fines for all violations, and allowed criminal penalties for knowing and willful violations. The 1969 Act strengthened safety standards and established health standards, including regulating the amount of respirable coal dust in underground coal mines - and, for the first time, provided government benefits for miners disabled by black lung disease.

Throughout the years, mine safety and health have steadily improved in the United States. There are fewer fatalities, fewer injuries, fewer cases of occupational illness in the mines in this country today than there were in 1969. There has been steady, real, and measurable progress.

The simple numbers tell the story. In the 40 years before the Coal Mine Act was signed, the average number of fatalities in coal mines was 809 miners a year - a shocking number. In the 40 years since the enactment of the Act, the average number of miners who died in coal mines fell dramatically to 83 per year. Improved technology, mine health and safety management systems and other interventions aided in reducing mining deaths. However, the Coal Mine Act has to be credited with much of the decline in deaths

Metal and nonmetal mines were not covered by the 1969 Act, but were covered under the Federal Metal and Nonmetallic Mine Safety Act of 1966. The Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 consolidated all federal mining regulations, including the 1969 Act and the Metal and Nonmetallic Mine Safety Act. Metal and nonmetal mining also experienced a significant drop in fatalities as more mine safety and health legislation was enacted.

Far too many miners have died. Too many are still dying. But progress has been made.

The mining industry has marked a number of years with record low numbers of fatalities. But while we acknowledge that achievement, the loss of even one miner profoundly affects families, friends, communities, colleagues, employers. A catastrophic injury or event can change a miner's life forever. And occupational illnesses can and do disable miners and shorten lifespans.

We at MSHA are celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Coal Mine Act this year - but we will also take this anniversary celebration as a call to do better, do more, and to fulfill the promises made in the Act. We celebrate the strengthening of occupational safety and health standards in that Act. We acknowledge that the Act is the foundation for the strong occupational safety and health laws and regulations that we have today in the Mine Act of 1977 and the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act of 2006. We will carry forward our determination to end fatalities, injuries, and occupational illness in our nation's mines.

And we will remember. The miners who died at Farmington - and in too many other mining accidents throughout the decades in this country - did not die in vain. Their sacrifice - and the sacrifices of their families and friends, of their communities and colleagues - will continue to inspire us to strive for safer mines and healthier mining workplaces so that miners will go to work every day and come home every day safe, healthy and whole.

Out of tragedy, a strong law was born. We celebrate the law, we rejoice in the results, we mourn those who died to make it possible - and we work to prevent anyone else from dying in our nation's mines.