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NIOSH Respiratory Diseases Research Program

Evidence Package for the National Academies' Review 2006-2007

NIOSH Programs > Respiratory Diseases > Evidence Package > 1. Introduction to NIOSH

1.2 Legislative Foundations

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The main legislative underpinnings of NIOSH are the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 (amended in 1977) and the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. The “Coal Act” was passed in the aftermath of a devastating coal mine explosion that occurred in Farmington, WV in 1968. It took the lives of 78 miners and crystallized public opinion that stronger measures were needed to protect coal miners at work. The Coal Act specified a comprehensive set of preventive measures, including dust exposure limits; frequent mine inspections with fines for noncompliance with safety regulations, respirator approval for use in mines, health screening and job transfer of miners with coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, and research. Activities required by the Coal Act were split between the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, which engaged in non-regulatory activities such as health screening and research; and the Mine Enforcement and Safety Administration (MESA) in the Department of the Interior (DOI), which engaged in developing and enforcing workplace safety and health regulations in the mining industry. NIOSH subsequently assumed the health screening and research responsibilities specified under the Coal Act after its creation by the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (see below). When the Coal Act was amended in 1977, MESA was replaced by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) in the Department of Labor.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (Public Law 91-596;5 (External link: (A1-1) followed closely after the Coal Act. It created both NIOSH and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which is in the Department of Labor and is responsible for developing and enforcing workplace safety and health regulations in industries other than mining.

Information pertaining to the responsibilities of NIOSH are found in Section 22 of the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 (29 CFR § 671). The Institute is authorized to:

  • Develop recommendations for occupational safety and health standards
  • Perform all functions of the Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare (subsequently Health and Human Services) under Sections 20 and 21 of the Act
  • Conduct research on worker safety and health (Section 20)
  • Conduct training and employee education (Section 21)
  • Develop information on safe levels of exposure to toxic materials and harmful physical agents and substance
  • Conduct research on new safety and health problems
  • Conduct on-site investigations to determine the toxicity of materials used in workplaces (Health Hazard Evaluations [HHEs] - 42 CFR Part 85; and General Research Authority – 42 CFR Part 85a)
  • Fund research by other agencies or private organizations through grants, contracts, and other arrangements

The Federal Mine Safety and Health Amendments Act of 1977 (which superseded the Coal Act of 1969) specified a number of authorities for NIOSH in coal mining health research. The Mine Safety and Health Law authorized NIOSH to:

  • Develop recommendations for mine health standards for MSHA
  • Administer a medical surveillance program for miners, including chest x-rays to detect pneumoconiosis (black lung disease) in coal miners
  • Conduct on-site investigations in mines similar to those authorized for general industry under the Occupational Safety and Health Act
  • Test and certify personal protective equipment and hazard-measurement instruments (discussed in more detail in chapter 11)

Mining safety and health remain an ongoing concern of NIOSH. This year, the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response (MINER) Act of 2006 was enacted in the wake of the Sago Mine explosion. The MINER Act amends the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977. The act creates regulations enforceable by MSHA to improve accident preparedness and response. The act also specifies that NIOSH create an Office of Mine Safety and Health. The purpose of the office is, “to enhance the development of new mine safety technology and technological applications and to expedite the commercial availability and implementation of such technology in mining environments.” The office is to achieve this purpose through competitive grants, contracts, and by establishing an interagency working group for mine safety.

Thus, Congress has set a clear division between the research function of NIOSH; and the regulatory and enforcement functions of MSHA and OSHA. Although NIOSH works together with MSHA and OSHA to achieve the common goal of protecting worker safety and health, NIOSH simultaneously maintains its unique identity as the sole federal government organization primarily charged to conduct occupational safety and health research.

Through its legislated authorities, NIOSH gathers information, conducts scientific research, and translates the knowledge gained into products and services. The mission of NIOSH is critical to the health and safety of every U.S. worker.

5. U.S. Congress [1970]. Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, Public Law 91-596, 29 USC 651, SEC. 2-B.