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Letter to the President of the Senate and to the Speaker of the House Proposing the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1968

September 11, 1968

Dear Mr. President: (Dear Mr. Speaker:)

When President Harry Truman signed the Coal Mine Safety Act sixteen years ago, he declared that, "the legislation falls far short of the recommendation I submitted to the Congress to meet the urgent problems in this field."

The record shows just how far short that measure fell. Since 1952, over 5,500 miners have been killed on the job. Another 250,000 were seriously disabled. No one knows how many thousands more have died, their lungs blackened by the ravages of coal dust disease--pneumoconiosis.

Today, despite the safety measures on the books, coal mining remains the most dangerous and hazardous occupation for the American worker. The National Safety Council reports that of the forty major industries in this country, coal mining ranks highest in frequency and severity of death and injury.

We have succeeded in preventing many of the major coal mine disasters that took dozens of lives at a time. But coal miners are still crushed by cave-ins, burned by explosions, maimed by antiquated and unsafe equipment. They still pay with their health for the right of earning a living because the air they breathe is thick with coal dust. At the very least, one out of every ten active miners--and one out of every five retired miners--suffers from a serious respiratory disease. For the tens of thousands of miners so afflicted, the shortness of breath may shorten their lives.

Consider some of the tragedies of just the past few months: --A massive landslide at the face of a mine in West Virginia crushed three workers to death.

--A major explosion in a Kentucky mine snuffed out the lives of a nine-man crew. The cause: the dangerous practice of hauling dynamite on a drilling machine.

--Miners in West Virginia inadvertently drilled into an abandoned water-filled mine shaft, and four were drowned.

There was nothing inevitable about these disasters. They happened because our coal mine safety laws are inadequate, and because even existing laws are all too frequently ignored.

At the present time, Federal inspectors have too little jurisdiction over the working face of the mines, where nearly half of the fatal accidents occur. They cannot tell a mine owner to shore up a sagging roof in this area. They cannot require the replacement of. a potentially hazardous machine. They cannot require a reduction in the level of coal dust in the air to safe limits because the laws do not even touch on the problem of health standards. They have no jurisdiction at all over the nation's 2,250 surface mines, which account for almost 40 percent of our coal production.

Our inspectors are not even backed by effective enforcement penalties where the law does apply. It is a measure of this weakness that last year more than 80 percent of the nation's nearly 6,000 underground coal mines were in violation of one or more Federal safety standards.

Today, I urge the Congress to remedy these defects. 1 recommend the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1968.

It is time that an enlightened and progressive nation give its coal miners a new charter of health and safety as they toil for the comfort of us all.

This Act will, for the first time:

--Extend Federal enforcement to the face of mine, the area where so many deaths and injuries occur, as well as correcting 18 other specific safety omissions in the present law.

--Abolish the "grandfather clause" which allows old and unsafe electrical equipment to be used.

--Give the Secretary of the Interior authority to develop and issue safety standards as the need arises.

Provide a way to reduce the human devastation of coal dust disease by requiring the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare to develop health criteria, and the Secretary of the Interior, following such criteria, to issue health standards and enforce them.

--Impose meaningful and effective sanctions for failure to comply with the terms of the law: criminal penalties and higher fines for willful violations, civil penalties and injunctions to deter and stop unsafe practices.

--Apply the law's reach to surface coal mines.

--Create simplified and streamlined enforcement procedures to require quick correction of hazardous conditions.

The cost of this measure will be small. Its benefits will be large, not only in terms of the lives it can save and the injuries it can prevent, but in practical terms of dollars and cents. Last year alone, over 1.8 million man-days were lost to the nation and the mine owners as a result of job-related deaths and injuries. Many millions of dollars in workmen's compensation payments were awarded to injured and disabled miners.

The recommendations I make today result from a recently concluded thorough review of the weaknesses of existing coal mine safety legislation. That review was undertaken by the Secretary of the Interior in consultation with the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare and other interested agencies of the Government.

I realize that it is late in the session. But the health and safety of America's 144,000 coal miners deserve immediate attention.

This proposal complements the comprehensive Occupational Safety and Health Act--designed to protect 75 million American workers in other occupations--which I submitted last January. The need to safeguard men on the job, to spare them and their families the agony of injury and the ravages of illness, whether they labor in the depths of a mine or on a factory workbench, is urgent. I call upon the Congress to enact these important worker protection measures into law before adjournment.



Note: This is the text of similar letters addressed to the Honorable Hubert H. Humphrey, President of the Senate, and to the Honorable John W. McCormack, Speaker of the House of Representatives.

In the letter to the Speaker of the House, the third paragraph from the end reads as follows:

"The proposal I submit today is the result of a long and careful study submitted to me last week by the Secretary of the Interior."
The proposed Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1968 was not enacted by the 90th Congress.

For the President's message to Congress of January 23, 1968, on manpower and occupational health and safety programs, entitled "To Earn A Living, the Right of Every American," see Item 24. The Health Manpower Act of 1968, proposed in that message, was approved by the President on August 16, 1968 (see Item 447).

Lyndon B. Johnson, Letter to the President of the Senate and to the Speaker of the House Proposing the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1968 Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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