In 1891, Congress passed the first federal statute governing mine safety. This 1891 law was relatively modest legislation that applied only to mines in U.S. territories, and, among other things, established minimum ventilation requirements at underground coal mines and prohibited operators from employing children under 12 years of age. In 1910, following a decade in which the number of coal mine fatalities exceeded 2,000 annually, Congress established the Bureau of Mines as a new agency in the Department of the Interior.
The Bureau was charged with the responsibility to conduct research and to reduce accidents in the coal mining industry, but was given no inspection authority until 1941, when Congress empowered federal inspectors to enter mines. In 1947, Congress authorized the formulation of the first code of federal regulations for mine safety. The Federal Coal Mine Safety Act of 1952 provided for annual inspections in certain underground coal mines, and gave the Bureau limited enforcement authority, including power to issue violation notices and imminent danger withdrawal orders. In 1966, Congress extended coverage of the 1952 Coal Act to all underground coal mines.
The first federal statute directly regulating non-coal mines did not appear until the passage of the Federal Metal and Nonmetallic Mine Safety Act of 1966. The 1966 Act provided for the promulgation of standards, many of which were advisory, and for inspections and investigations; however, its enforcement authority was minimal. The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, generally referred to as the Coal Act, was more comprehensive and more stringent than any previous Federal legislation governing the mining industry. The Coal Act included surface as well as underground coal mines within its scope, required two annual inspections of every surface coal mine and four at every underground coal mine, and dramatically increased federal enforcement powers in coal mines.
The Coal Act also required monetary penalties for all violations, and established criminal penalties for knowing and willful violations. The safety standards for all coal mines were strengthened, and health standards were adopted. The Coal Act included specific procedures for the development of improved mandatory health and safety standards, and provided compensation for miners who were totally and permanently disabled by the progressive respiratory disease caused by the inhalation of fine coal dust pneumoconiosis or “black lung”.
Most recently, Congress passed the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 (Mine Act), the legislation which currently governs MSHA’s activities. The Mine Act amended the 1969 Coal Act in a number of significant ways, and consolidated all federal health and safety regulations of the mining industry, coal as well as non-coal mining, under a single statutory scheme. The Mine Act strengthened and expanded the rights of miners, and enhanced the protection of miners from retaliation for exercising such rights. Mining fatalities dropped sharply under the Mine Act from 272 in 1977 to 86 in 2000.
Additionally, the Mine Act established the independent Federal Mine Safety and Health Review Commission to provide for independent review of the majority of MSHA’s enforcement actions. This was clipped from the 2002 MSHA video, Reflections Mining History, which shows the evolution of health and safety laws and the role of the supervisor. The entire DVD is 11 minutes in length and available from MSHA.