Mining is hard and dangerous work with a long history of accidents, occupational illness, and strikes and protests that sometimes turn violent or even deadly. For centuries, miners have struggled to gain safer working conditions and fair pay. It was not until the late 1970’s that conditions began to improve significantly in the United States, but at the beginning of this century things took a turn for the worse.
The Mine Health and Safety Act was passed in 1977. Since then, mining deaths and injuries have dropped significantly. In 1977, 139 of the 237,506 coal miners died, and 234 of 285,165 metal and non-metal miners died. In 2005 those numbers had dropped to 22 coal mining deaths among 112,449 coal miners and 35 deaths among 233,044 metal and non-metal miners.
With that kind of improvement, it would seem that the legislation was effective. However, in 2001 and 2002 there was an unusual reversal of progress toward workplace safety – 17 mining health and safety rules were withdrawn. These rules, some of which applied to mine rescue teams and self-contained self-rescue devices, could have saved the miners who died in the Sago mine in January, 2006.
The Sago mine tragedy which killed 12 miners, and other mining disasters in early 2006 prompted a renewed interest in mining safety regulations. The Mine Health and Safety Administration (MSHA) and the state of West Virginia both implemented emergency rules and legislation to improve mining safety. The state of Kentucky passed new permanent mining safety laws.
Finally, on June 15, 2006, the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (MINER) was signed into law at the federal level. MINER provisions include:
- Significantly increased fines for safety violations
- Increase in minimum emergency oxygen supply for each worker from one hour to two hours
- Five minute time limit for reporting serious accidents
- Underground rescue teams must be within an hour’s travel time
Critics feel that the new law does not do nearly enough and, in the long-term, serves to take the spotlight off of mining safety while doing little to improve conditions. Issues such as “belt air” and emergency oxygen supplies were not adequately addressed.
Advocates of mining safety were seeking a mandatory two-day, rather than two-hour, oxygen supply for trapped miners, and spot-checks of emergency breathing devices. “Belt air” refers to using coal conveyor belts as a source of ventilation. Previously prohibited, a new rule was created during the decline of mining safety standards to allow the practice. On January 19, 2006 two miners died of smoke inhalation when a belt in an air intake corridor caught fire, in an Aracoma coal mine in West Virginia.
Hopefully, the passage of MINER will mark the beginning of a rededication by lawmakers to safer and healthier mining practices, rather than lip service meant to relieve pressure from the general public.
If you have questions about how workers compensation affects you in your particular employment situation or if you have a workers’ compensation claim, please contact an experienced workers compensation attorney today.