Mine Safety and Health Administration
Contact: (703) 235-1452
June 19, 1995
PROPOSED BILL WOULD ENDANGER MINERS, MINE SAFETY CHIEF SAYS
Citing the Federal government's record of success in protecting miners, Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Davitt McAteer has denounced a proposal to repeal the Federal mine safety and health law.
"America's miners deserve the best on-the-job protections we can give them," McAteer said. "Mining is a unique and dangerous industry. And mining was significantly more dangerous in the days before Congress established effective Federal mine safety enforcement.
"In the past, too many miners faced a cruel choice between unemployment and a mining job that was apt to end in disabling injury, chronic lung disease, or death. Congressman Ballenger's proposed legislation would be a giant step in the wrong direction," McAteer said. "This bill would hurt a lot of hard- working men and women."
Secretary of Labor Robert Reich has said of the proposed "Safety and Health Improvement and Regulatory Reform Act of 1995," introduced in the House of Representatives by Subcommittee on Workforce Protection Chairman Cass Ballenger (R-NC), "This is not reform, this is retreat."
By repealing the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act, Ballenger's proposal would:
- Slash mandatory Federal inspections of underground mines from four per year to one;
- End mandatory Federal inspections of surface mines;
- Eliminate the current "true picture" aspect of in-mine inspections by dropping prohibition of advance notice and canceling mine inspectors' right to check out mine workplaces without a warrant; and
- Prevent Federal mine inspectors from closing an unsafe mine for uncorrected hazards, extreme operator negligence, or a pattern of violations.
In addition, under the proposal:
- Mine operators would pay no penalty for violating the law, so long as violations found by inspectors were corrected later;
- Federal mine inspectors could no longer order untrained miners withdrawn from the workplace;
- The Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) would be abolished.
"The Mine Act is a statute that works," McAteer said. "Repealing a good law isn't reform."
Since passage of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, McAteer noted, fatal coal mining accidents plummeted from 311 in 1968 to 44 last year, while coal production and productivity have soared. After the Federal Mine Safety and Health Acto of 19767 brought metal and nonmetal mines under the same law, these mines also have seen deaths drop from 136 in 1978 to 40 last year.
"During those year, mine hazards have not somehow gone away," McAteer said. "Vigilance is the difference."
"Mining remains a hazardous industry," McAteer said. "It's been just 13 months since the last fatal mine explosion. Let's not turn back the clock."
"I wish I could say that it is now safe to relax our vigilance on miners' safety and health," McAteer said, "but that simply is not the case. Even with strong enforcement, criminal violations of Federal mine safety standards have led to mine disasters such as the Southmountain mine explosion that killed eight Virginia coal miners less than three years ago. Less vigilance through inspections invites a greater danger of mining accidents."
"MSHA's vigilance also is key to the progress we are making against disabling coal miners' 'black lung' disease," McAteer said. "Federal benefit payments for 'black lung' consume over a billion dollars annually. This is not the time to slack off on prevention efforts."
McAteer also endorsed keeping MSHA as a separate agency. "MSHA's tightly defined mission has been a key to its effectiveness," McAteer said. "Without MSHA, miners and mine operators would have to rely on a overburdened Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), for which mining would be just one of many industries needing attention."
"In 1968, 78 men died in a West Virginia mine explosion. In 1972, a silver mine fire claimed 91 lives. Since then, no mine tragedy in this country has approached such a magnitude," McAteer said. "Do we really want to go back to those days?"