On 35th Anniversary of Mine Safety and Health Act, Still More Work to Do

393713 10: Coal is poured into a barge that will be moved to a steel plant August 26, 2001 in western PA. The coal mining ind
393713 10: Coal is poured into a barge that will be moved to a steel plant August 26, 2001 in western PA. The coal mining industry, once nearly extinct in Pennsylvania, has made a recent comeback as a centerpiece to President Bush''s energy plan. Since February of 2001 the price of coal has doubled to more than $40 a ton and over a thousand miners have gone back to work in Pennsylvania this year alone. Coal mining, while dangerous, dirty work, is still one of the best paying occupations in western Pennsylvania, with the average wage over $18 an hour with up to $6 an hour more in benefits. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

At one time, Iowa was the third-largest coal-producing state in the nation, and my father -- after many years working in coal mines -- was stricken with black lung that left him prone to pneumonia and made it difficult for him to work. Although he stopped working in the mines before I was born, he often told me stories of losing friends in the mines -- in accidents that were frighteningly common. Generations of brave miners have risked their health and safety every day to provide for their families.

Since my father's days, we have made great strides in workplace safety by taking bold action on behalf of the workers who keep our economy moving. Thirty-five years ago, Congress responded to a string of tragedies at American mines by enacting new standards and protections for workers in one of our most dangerous industries. The Mine Safety and Health Act put in place new safety and inspection standards, created the Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) to enforce those standards, and instituted stronger protections for workers who blow the whistle when they see employers disregarding the rules and putting workers in harm's way.

Prior to the 1977 Act, an average of one miner was killed each day in a mining accident; horrifically, in 1970, 425 miners were killed. In the 35 years following enactment, those rates have dropped significantly. In 2012, there were 35 fatalities in U.S. mines -- a number that is still too high, but represents significant improvements in worker safety.

However, while this Act and others like it have prevented untold injuries and deaths, we still have a long way to go to keep miners safe. We all remember the disastrous explosion at Upper Big Branch that tragically killed 29 people in 2010, and the terrible Sago mine explosion that killed 12 workers just four years earlier. In both instances, conditions at the mines were not in compliance with the standards set forth in the law, but the mines continued to operate. This is unacceptable: coal cannot come at the expense of miners' health and safety.

To honor the miners who died in those disasters, and the dozens of miners who die on the job each year, we must do more. As Chairman of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies, I have continually fought to provide MSHA with the resources it needs to implement and enforce mine safety and health legislation. In recent years we have made tremendous progress in this area, providing sufficient funding for MSHA to conduct 100 percent of its required mine inspections. These funds enable MSHA to hold mine operators accountable for providing safe and healthy workplaces for their employees. I also fully support comprehensive worker safety reforms like those in the Robert C. Byrd Mine and Workplace Safety Act, which would continue the very good work accomplished by the Mine Safety and Health Act and provide our workers with the safest environment possible.

We must keep pressing forward with the legacy of the Mine Safety and Health Act. It is far too important, and too many lives are at stake, to give up now.