Publication Date

March 2008

Abstract

[Excerpt] Safety in the coal mining industry is much improved compared to the early decades of the twentieth century, a time when hundreds of miners could lose their lives in a single accident and more than 1,000 fatalities could occur in a single year. Fatal injuries associated with coal mine accidents fell almost continually between 1925 and 2005, when they reached an all-time low of 23. As a result of 12 deaths at West Virginia’s Sago mine and fatalities at other coal mines in 2006, however, the number of fatalities more than doubled to 47. Fatalities declined a year later to 33, which is comparable to levels achieved during the late 1990s.

In addition to the well above-average fatal injury rates they face, coal miners suffer from occupationally caused diseases. Prime among them is black lung (coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, CWP), which still claims about 1,000 fatalities annually. Although improved dust control requirements have led to a decrease in the prevalence of CWP, there is recent evidence of advanced cases among miners who began their careers after the stronger standards went into effect in the early 1970s. In addition, disagreement persists over the current respirable dust limits and the degree of compliance with them by mine operators.

In the wake of the January 2006 Sago mine accident, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) was criticized for its slow pace of rulemaking earlier in the decade. MSHA standard-setting activity quickened starting later that year, however, after enactment in June of the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (MINER, P.L. 109-236). The MINER act, the first major amendment to federal mine safety law since 1977, emphasized factors thought to have played a role in the Sago disaster (e.g., emergency oxygen supplies, post-accident communication and tracking systems, deployment of rescue teams) and imposed several rulemaking deadlines on MSHA. Accordingly, the agency published final regulations on emergency mine evacuation in December 2006, civil penalties in March 2007, and rescue teams as well as asbestos exposure in February 2008.

Some policymakers remain dissatisfied with MSHA’s performance. These sentiments most recently led to House passage, in January 2008, of the Supplemental Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response Act (S-MINER, H.R. 2768). It incorporates language from the Miner Health Enhancement Act (H.R. 2769), such as requiring MSHA to adopt as mandatory exposure limits the voluntary limits (to chemical hazards, for example) recommended by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. S-MINER also requires MSHA to more closely review and monitor operator plans that include retreat mining, the practice used at Utah’s Crandall Canyon mine where six miners and three rescuers lost their lives in 2007. The President has said he will veto S-MINER as passed by the House.

In light of rulemaking activity required this year by the MINER act and the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2008 (P.L. 110-161), MSHA asked the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for assistance. Congress increased MSHA’s appropriation between FY2007 ($302 million) and FY2008 ($334 million). The Administration’s FY2009 budget request for MSHA is $332 million.

Comments

Suggested Citation
Levine, L. (2008). Coal mine safety and health (RS34429). Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service. http://digitalcommons.ilr.cornell.edu/key_workplace/503/

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