March 30 marked the 45th anniversary of the signing of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. It was the toughest worker health and safety law of its time and ushered in a new culture in mining. As he signed the new law, President Richard Nixon declared that it “represents a crucially needed step forward in the protection of America’s coal miners.”

A 1968 underground explosion that killed 78 coal miners in Farmington, W.Va., was a flashpoint for reform after years of fatalities and a growing awareness of black lung disease. This tragedy spawned a call for reform that led to the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, which:

  • Required federal inspections of all coal mines – twice a year for surface mines, four times a year for underground mines.
  • Authorized mine inspectors to shut down mines when life-threatening hazards were found.
  • Created strong, enforceable safety protections.
  • Set fines for all violations and criminal penalties for willful violations.
  • Added health protections, including for black lung diseases.
  • Established federal benefits for victims of black lung disease.

The law was enacted on March 30, 1970. Subsequent laws improved mine safety and health even more, extending protections to metal and nonmetal mines and creating an enforcement agency under the Department of Labor – the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). The act’s legacy has been healthier, safer mines and steady declines in fatalities and injuries. In 1970, the year the law took effect, 260 coal miners were killed in workplace accidents. In 2014, that number dropped to 16 – the lowest ever recorded.

Black Lung Remains a Risk

On the foundation of the 1969 Coal Act, improvements continue, including the 2014 rule to further protect miners from black lung disease, the most insidious and the cause of more coal miner fatalities than all cave-ins and explosions combined.

According to DOL, black lung disease has killed more than 70,000 miners between 1970 and May 2013. Under the Black Lung Benefits Act, DOL provides compensation to coal miners who are determined to be totally disabled by pneumoconiosis triggered by working in a coal mine and to their families.

A request was made of DOL’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) by the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and Workforce to review the program when a report that was issued by the Center for Public Integrity in 2013 examined alleged misconduct by doctors and attorneys working for the coal industry.

“We know the system has been gamed by coal companies and their hired medical experts, and every effort needs to be made to ensure the playing field is leveled for miners afflicted with black lung disease and their survivors,” said House Education and the Workforce Committee Ranking Member Robert C. Scott (D-Va.). “Miners with black lung disease are entitled to an accurate medical evaluation, fair treatment and timely decisions.

Scott noted that the OIG made a total of 23 recommendations “that could enable the Labor Department to improve the quality of decisions and help resolve claims faster.” He said he plans to re-introduce the Black Lung Benefits Improvement Act in this Congress with Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.) and others. The bill will include the legislative reform included in the OIG report that Scott said would cut claim processing times by 2 months on average.

Many Opportunities for Improvement

“We found many opportunities to improve the black lung disease claims process,” the OIG report said, notably:

  • The Office of Workers’ Compensation Programs (OWCP) could work with its approved medical providers to improve the quality of medical reports and to reduce the time it takes providers to submit those reports. OWCP also could work with the Social Security Administration to expedite access to claimants’ earnings records.
  • The Office of Administrative Law Judges (OALJ) could improve its workload management by establishing performance goals for the disposition of cases for the office as a whole and for its district offices individually.
  • OALJ also needs to address a shortage of staff resources, improve communications between its headquarters and district offices, and upgrade the training provided to judges and law clerks.
  • The Benefits Review Board (BRB) should consider whether the temporary reassignment of BRB staff to assist
  • OALJ in reducing its case backlog would be a more effective use of resources.
  • DOL should consider streamlining the claims process with an automated system that allows OWCP, OALJ and BRB to exchange case files.
  • Finally, DOL could take additional actions in response to the recommendations made by the Government Accountability Office in its October 2009 report on the black lung benefits program.

In response to the report, the agencies indicated that they already have or are in the process of taking action on most of OIG’s recommendations. OWCP noted that it would like to further evaluate the long-term impacts of the 2010 amendments to the BLBA before pursuing additional amendments. Also, OALJ stated that it did not believe implementing a time-tracking system for judges and law clerks would be an effective mechanism to improve productivity.