Editor’s Note: This post originally ran as an op-ed. View the original here.
One hundred seven years ago today in Monongah, West Virginia, 362 coal miners – many of them teenage boys — went to work and never came home. That morning, an explosion ripped through two connected mines. The earth reportedly shook as far as eight miles away. A thousand people were left without a husband or father.
To commemorate this tragedy, still America’s worst-ever coal mining disaster, we recognize December 6 as National Miners Day. It is an opportunity to reflect on the contributions to economic growth and progress made by all miners – whether they mine coal, salt, gold, silver, limestone or other minerals. And Miners Day is also a moment to recommit ourselves to the safety of those who make a living doing this tough, backbreaking work.
Of course, industrial disasters like the one at Monongah aren’t the only mine safety threat. Since 1968, a staggering 76,000 miners have lost their lives at least in part to black lung disease.
But under the Obama administration, we are taking historic steps toward ending this deadly but preventable disease that continues to afflict miners. In April, I traveled to Morgantown, West Virginia with Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health Joe Main to announce a final regulation that will limit miners’ exposure to respirable coal dust.
We heard heartbreaking stories that day. One miner fought back tears and described how black lung would keep him from teaching his grandson how to play basketball. My abiding memory of that day is the click-click-click sound of the oxygen tanks being worn by former miners in the room.
Already, the coal dust rule is making a difference. Despite skepticism in some quarters, initial results from the first two months under the new rule show that approximately 99 percent of dust samples met compliance levels.
There is no reason we can’t have both healthy miners and a thriving coal industry. Smart coal operators recognize that. I returned to coal country this week – this time to Greene County, Pennsylvania — where I toured Cumberland Coal Resources LP, a mine that is actively rejecting the false choice that says you can have either profitability or safety but not both. And they’re doing it on the strength of a robust union-management partnership between the United Mine Workers and Alpha Resources, Cumberland’s parent company. When I asked one miner what he liked best about his job, he said it was that he had a voice at work.
This was my first mine visit. A thousand feet below the earth’s surface, I met miners for whom safety is unmistakably priority No. 1. I was also struck by the combination of high-tech and low-tech tools to keep miners safe. On the one hand, there’s a sophisticated fiber optic network to track all miners’ locations underground. On the other, there’s something as basic as a rope to help guide them to an exit in case of emergency.
I was moved by the enormous pride these men and women have in their work. One miner told me how much it meant to work in the same place as his father. I gained a greater appreciation for the way that mining defines families and communities; it’s an heirloom that bonds one generation to the next.
After a few hours, I emerged from the mine – my boots caked with mud, my face smeared with coal residue, and my respect for coal miners never stronger.
Follow Secretary Perez on Twitter, @LaborSec.
Tags: National Miners Day