Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act Is Approved Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act imposed significant regulations on the coal industry to safeguard miners. A 1977 amendment extended the act to include research on the health and safety of miners, including those engaged in the mining of materials other than coal.

Summary of Event

The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act was enacted into law on December 30, 1969. Instrumental legislators included Republican senators Jacob K. Javits of New York and Richard Schultz Schweiker of Pennsylvania, as well as Democrats Carl Dewey Perkins—a representative from Kentucky—and Senator Jennings Randolph of West Virginia. The act grew out of concern for the miner as the most precious resource and first priority in mining. Deaths and injuries were a serious concern, and the legislation attempted to enforce more effective measures to improve working conditions for coal miners. Unsafe conditions were also a serious impediment to the growth of the mining industry, and mine accidents and diseases an undue burden on commerce. The act made the mine operators primarily responsible for mine practices and conditions, and directed the appropriate agencies to promulgate and enforce appropriate standards. Labor;workplace hazards Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act (1969) Workplace hazards Mining Workers’ rights[Workers rights] [kw]Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act Is Approved (Dec. 30, 1969) [kw]Coal Mine Health and Safety Act Is Approved, Federal (Dec. 30, 1969) [kw]Mine Health and Safety Act Is Approved, Federal Coal (Dec. 30, 1969) [kw]Health and Safety Act Is Approved, Federal Coal Mine (Dec. 30, 1969) [kw]Act Is Approved, Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety (Dec. 30, 1969) Labor;workplace hazards Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act (1969) Workplace hazards Mining Workers’ rights[Workers rights] [g]North America;Dec. 30, 1969: Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act Is Approved[10630] [g]United States;Dec. 30, 1969: Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act Is Approved[10630] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Dec. 30, 1969: Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act Is Approved[10630] [c]Business and labor;Dec. 30, 1969: Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act Is Approved[10630] [c]Health and medicine;Dec. 30, 1969: Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act Is Approved[10630] Javits, Jacob K. Perkins, Carl Dewey Randolph, Jennings Schweiker, Richard Schultz

Generally, acts of Congress establish an overall philosophy or framework and direct and authorize the appropriate federal agency to promulgate regulations to implement the statute. In this 1969 act, the secretary of health, education, and welfare and the secretary of the interior were made responsible for enforcing the improved standards. In addition, coal mine operators and miners were made responsible for complying with the standards. Agencies were to work with the states to develop and enforce state coal mine health and safety programs. Finally, the act authorized expanding research toward preventing coal mine accidents and diseases.

The 1969 act pertained to all coal mines, both underground and surface, and to the mining of all grades of coal, from bituminous to ignite and anthracite. Any individual working in a coal mine was considered a miner. An interim compliance panel was established with representatives from the Departments of Labor Department of Labor, U.S. , Commerce, the Interior, and Health, Education, and Welfare Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, U.S.;workplace safety (HEW), as well as the National Science Foundation. The panel was empowered to appoint examiners for hearings; the panel’s decisions could be appealed by either operators or miners. The panel also had to make annual progress reports to Congress.

Promulgation of health and safety standards was mandated to the HEW secretary, although consultation with the Labor Department and other agencies was also thought to be necessary. Mandatory health and safety standards that were developed or revised had to be published in the Federal Register for a thirty-day comment period. If objections were filed and a public hearing was requested, additional time was allowed for that hearing. The final regulations were also published in the Federal Register. Only one year was allotted for developing the health and safety standards for surface mines and for the surface work areas of underground mines.

When finalized and published in the Federal Register, every standard and regulation had to be sent to every coal mine operator and to the representative of coal miners at each mine; a copy was also to be posted on each mine site. The act also called for the formation of an advisory committee from the Office of Science and Technology, the National Bureau of Standards, National Science Foundation, and coal mine experts. This committee was to direct the development of research into coal mines and to approve grants and research contracts.

Representatives of the HEW secretary were also authorized to make inspections and investigations to obtain or disseminate information on health and safety conditions and accidents; gather information on mandatory standards; determine if an imminent danger existed; and establish compliance with regulations. The act specifically stated that no advance notice of inspections would be given and that inspections would be carried out at least four times a year. Investigators were given subpoena power and the right to hold public hearings with proper notice. Mine operators were required to report accidents and to prevent destruction of evidence. Provisions were made for confidentiality in the case of miners who informed the agency of violations and requested immediate inspections.

If an inspection revealed an imminent danger, a mine could be shut down immediately. Most violations, however, resulted in a notice that allowed time to address the problem. In cases where a mine operator refused to allow inspection, failed to comply with orders or decisions, or withheld information, the secretary could institute a civil action, secure a temporary or permanent injunction, or seek a restraining order. Operators could be assessed civil penalties of between $10,000 and $50,000 for various convictions of having knowingly violated and refused to comply with health and safety standards. Miners who willfully violated standards with actions such as smoking or carrying matches, could receive a civil penalty of $250 per violation. Fines and imprisonment were also possible for selling nonstandard mining equipment required by the regulations. Once a mine operation was shut down in consequence of orders under the act, the miners were entitled to their regular pay. Miners who reported violations or testified in hearings could not be discharged or discriminated against for this reason.

Unlike safety standards that were usually in place and easy to assess, health standards that would allow a miner to work underground for his adult life without contracting pneumoconiosis or other related diseases were in a continual process of being refined. From the beginning, the HEW secretary was directed to post dust levels and the methodology for measuring those levels in the Federal Register. The act established an original level of 3.0 milligrams of respirable dust per cubic meter of air, which was to drop to 2.0 milligrams three years later. In cases where the operator, using available technology, could not achieve these levels, a permit for noncompliance was issued for a limited time of not more than eighteen months.

The 1969 act directed the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) to provide coal miners with periodic chest X-ray examinations, to begin within eighteen months after the law went into effect. The act included provisions for transferring miners with lung disease to less dusty areas. The act also paid for autopsies of deceased miners and former miners as part of its function of conducting research on pulmonary diseases and advising in the establishment of health standards in coal mining.

Fairly specific regulations were made for mines being managed with maximum safety of the miners. These regulations addressed criteria for roof support, ventilation, methane tests, daily reports, the presence of combustible material and rock dust, management of electrical equipment and cables, fire protection, blasting and explosives, haulage equipment, and many aspects of training programs, sanitary facilities, drinking water, and the like.

An important portion of the act addressed claims for black lung benefits before and after December 31, 1972. The concluding portion of the act detailed efforts to be made in research, allocating grants, training inspectors, providing assistance to states, and making reports.

In 1977, the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act Federal Mine Safety and Health Act (1977) amended the 1969 act by extending its range beyond coal mining and calling for research to protect the health and safety of miners in all metal and nonmetal mines. In addition, two new mining programs were established: The Mining Industries Surveillance Program Mining Industries Surveillance Program was to document the hazardous physical agents used in mining and to determine the toxicity levels for common levels of usage; the Health Hazard Evaluation Program Health Hazard Evaluation Program was to conduct research on possible new health hazards in mining and to conduct scientific evaluations on specific hazards within 120 days.


The Department of the Interior’s Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration Mining Enforcement and Safety Administration (MESA), an expansion of the previous inspection arm of the Bureau of Mines, Bureau of Mines, U.S. was formed to enforce the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act. The act required that all coal mines be inspected. Inspectors were given the power to shut down mines when they found an imminent danger in the workplace. In the tradition of unannounced health inspections of restaurants or hospitals, the agency does not give prior notice of visits by inspectors to coal mine operations.

Section 203 of the 1969 Act mandated that underground coal miners be provided with chest X-ray examinations within eighteen months after December 30, 1969. The exams were to be provided to the miners at no cost to them by the mine operators. A second X ray was required three years after the first exam; if there were signs of pneumoconiosis, additional X rays were to be given two years later. Otherwise X rays were to be given at intervals not to exceed five years. Because of the high numbers of miners involved, X rays were given in groups and often scheduled for the workers in an entire mine. From 1973 to 1978, NIOSH interpreted X rays for more than 118,000 miners. Of these, fewer than 6,700 miners (less than 6 percent) had some stage of pneumoconiosis; 2,300, or less than 2 percent, were eligible to transfer to less dusty mining jobs. These low rates reflected the fact that many miners were new to coal mining.

NIOSH established a two-tier system of reading X rays and maintaining quality control. NIOSH was required to notify the Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration of findings and to notify miners of any benefits due them under the act. Miners who showed evidence of various levels of simple pneumoconiosis were permitted to transfer to mining duties in areas with lower levels of coal dust; the specific levels and the procedures were well defined.

The 1969 act provides for autopsies for underground coal miners, regardless of whether they were active coal miners at the time of death. The procedures for the autopsies of coal miners required by the act were likewise well defined: Pathologists who submitted reports and tissue specimens were reimbursed $200 per autopsy, the cost of which was borne by the coal company. Generally, NIOSH conducted approximately three hundred autopsies per year.

Among the MESA regulations for underground coal-mine workplaces were prescribed levels of illumination within a miner’s normal field of view of at least 0.06 footlamberts, a measure of reflectance, not candlepower. A new photometer developed for MESA to measure this light intensity provided a simple indication of whether light levels met regulations. The increased lighting requirements in turn increased the need to be careful with the added power cords necessary to feed the additional lighting equipment. By 1977, MESA had altered some light standards after recognizing that a drastic contrast in lighting intensity could be as dangerous as too little light.

The first extensive survey of noise levels in underground coal mines in the United States was made in 1970. NIOSH concluded that miners—who were exposed to pneumatic drills, heavy mining machines, and loading machines—generally had worse hearing than workers not subjected to excessive job-related noise. The 1969 act directed the secretary to establish maximum noise standards and to require a certified assessment of noise level in mines every six months.

In cases of underground mine fires or explosions, self-rescue equipment, which resembled a large gas mask in appearance and was intended to convert toxic carbon monoxide to carbon dioxide, was required. New MESA regulations required that miners be trained in the use of one-hour oxygen supplies and oxygen-generating units. It was permissible to carry a ten-minute device that would allow a miner to reach the one-hour canisters located at various strategic places in the mine. These oxygen supplies improved on the previously used filter systems, which had not protected against oxygen-deficient air, carbon dioxide, high temperatures, and toxic gases produced by the increased use of plastics.

MESA also developed a point system for rating coal mines. Underground and surface mines were rated on different scales, which evolved into an intricate matrix of standards. MESA inspectors investigated dust levels, health and safety training, equipment and the management of it, accident and injury records, job-safety analyses by the company, employee supervision, protection equipment, maintenance schedules, health examinations, and enforcement of rules. Under its education and training mandate, MESA produced a series of films, some of which won industrial film awards.

The 1969 act demonstrated that the federal government was concerned about coal miners and that miners were no longer considered expendable resources that could be sacrificed to provide various natural resources. Most mine operators had long before established better working conditions, but the Coal Mining Health and Safety Act of 1969 established a standardized framework for effective enforcement of safety standards to accommodate new mining technologies as well as new scientific health developments. Owing to legislation and regulation, mining disasters have generally been both less frequent and less deadly than in past years. In the first quarter of the twentieth century 305 coal mine disasters along with 51 other mine disasters took 356 lives. In the last quarter of the century, 13 coal mine disasters and one other mine disaster took 14 lives. Labor;workplace hazards Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act (1969) Workplace hazards Mining Workers’ rights[Workers rights]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aldrich, Mark. Safety First: Technology, Labor, and Business in the Building of American Work Safety, 1870-1939. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997. Crucial background for the mine safety legislation of the late twentieth century. Includes two chapters on early coal mine regulations, as well as an appendix listing mine injury and fatality rates from 1870 to 1939.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dennen, W. H. Mineral Resources: Geology, Exploration, and Development. New York: Taylor & Francis, 1989. A clearly written, well-documented introduction to mineral resources, covering the formation of deposits as well as exploration, mining, and processing. Discusses the economics and legal framework of the mining enterprise.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hoppe, R., ed. E/MJ Operating Handbook of Mineral Surface Mining and Exploration. New York: E/MJ Mining Informational Services, 1978. A collection of articles from the Engineering and Mining Journal that provides well-illustrated and easily understood descriptions of the variations of mining practices in use. Includes accident data on haulage trucks, air filtration equipment, and detonation processes and equipment.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nelkin, Dorothy, and Michael S. Brown. Workers at Risk: Voices from the Workplace. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. A collection of interviews with workers from a variety of fields, including mining. Discusses workplace hazards and steps that might be taken to reduce them.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">U.S. Congress. Public Law 91-173: Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. 91st Congress, 1st session, 1969. This official wording of the statute can be found in many public libraries and federal document repositories.

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