Main: A mine safety law that worked
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Nov. 20, 1968, 5:30 a.m. An explosion rips through Farmington No. 9 Mine in West Virginia. It leaves 78 miners dead. There is sorrow, outrage and finally, action. Congress passes the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, a law that will forever transform occupational safety and health in the United States.

Far to the West, in the silver mines of Idaho, a fire engulfs the Sunshine Mine on May 2, 1972. Ninety-one workers die from smoke inhalation and carbon monoxide poisoning. These "metal/nonmetal miners" are not protected by the 1969 law.

In 1976, two violent blasts shatter the Scotia Mine in Kentucky within days of each other, killing 26 — including mine inspectors and rescue workers who had arrived to investigate the first explosion. Lawmakers and the public demand action to protect all miners, which leads to passage of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977.

The law transfers the Interior Department's Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration to the U.S. Department of Labor, which seven years earlier established the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. And it created today's Mine Safety and Health Administration. The Labor Department becomes the "top cop" on the workplace safety beat, including mines.

In 1977, there were 273 mining fatalities in the United States. Last year, we brought that number down to 35. Simply stated, the law enacted 35 years ago this month has saved countless lives.

While all miners gained new protections as a result of that law, the greatest impact was felt in the metal and nonmetal mining industry. Additional protections for these miners included stringent enforcement of safety and health regulations and mandated inspections, four times per year at underground mines and twice per year at surface mines. And protection against loss of pay for the time a mine is idled at MSHA's insistence.

The law also enhanced anti-discrimination provisions and, for the first time, provided miners an opportunity for temporary reinstatement to their jobs while pursuing complaints. For the first time, it required mine operators to provide training for new miners and newly hired experienced miners, and annual safety retraining of miners during normal working hours and at normal compensation rates. Finally, the law created effective enforcement tools to address mine operators with chronic violations.

Like many others who worked in the mines before the 1977 act, I know the dramatic changes that it spurred. Today, more than ever before, miners are vigorously exercising their rights by speaking out about unsafe conditions at their mines. MSHA, in turn, has increased its efforts to enhance miner protection from discrimination, particularly by filing complaints on their behalf, including requests for temporary reinstatement.

In 2012, through MSHA's investigations, 46 temporary reinstatement requests were filed, the most in the agency's history.

Joseph A. Main is assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health.