35th Anniversary of NIOSH Research Under Coal Mine Act Highlights Accomplishments, Ongoing Partnerships

Contact: Fred Blosser (202) 401-3749
December 22, 2004

John Howard, M.D., Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), today hailed the 35 th anniversary of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. The legislation established NIOSH’s current program of research and technical assistance to prevent work-related illnesses, injuries, and deaths in coal mining.

The coal mine act was signed by President Richard M. Nixon and enacted on Dec. 30, 1969. The NIOSH research program was part of a historic federal mission created under the law to prevent catastrophic coal mine fires and explosions, coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (also known as black lung disease), and other hazards to coal miners.

“Coal mining is not simply an industry, it is also a proud way of life for miners and mine operators, often spanning generations of families,” Dr. Howard said. “With great respect for this tradition, NIOSH has worked closely with diverse partners to design and apply new safety and health interventions. Many standard safety features in today’s mines resulted from such collaborations. While we are gratified that injuries, illnesses, and fatalities among coal miners have declined over the past three decades, more remains to be done. This 35 th anniversary of our program marks an opportunity to re-dedicate ourselves to this important mission.”

NIOSH’s mining safety and health research is located at laboratories in Morgantown, W.Va., Pittsburgh, Pa., and Spokane, Wash. Keeping pace with technological and demographic changes in 21 st Century coal mining, NIOSH’s recent projects with diverse partners include:

  • Establishing methods for using new digital chest imaging technologies instead of traditional chest X-rays in monitoring coal miners for black lung disease (coal workers’ pneumoconiosis).
  • Developing and testing a personal monitoring device for almost instantaneous measurement of miners’ exposure to coal mine dust in underground mines – an important step in further reducing the incidence of black lung disease.
  • Producing software programs to help mine planners, mine managers, and others to design effective roof-support systems for their mines to prevent catastrophic roof falls.
  • Devising new types of roof-support systems to replace the heavy, bulky concrete and timber blocks that traditionally have been used for roof support. These innovative systems provide equally stable support while being easier to install. Consequently, they reduce the risk of potentially disabling strains and sprains that mine employees traditionally have faced in installing the heavier, bulkier components.

Additional information is available from 1-800-35-NIOSH and at Coal Mine Health Safety Act site 35 YEARS AND COUNTING: NIOSH RESEARCH TO PREVENT INJURIES, ILLNESSES IN COAL MINING
Mining produces the raw materials for the essential goods that we use every day. It is also an inherently dangerous industry. The passage of the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 recognized the need to reduce the risk of injury, illness, and death in this industry, and has brought about significant improvements to the health and safety of our nation’s miners.

A key factor in this success has been the research conducted in laboratories in Pittsburgh , Pa. , and Spokane , Wash. , in a program originally administered by the U.S. Bureau of Mines and then transferred to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 1997. Here are examples of key research accomplishments since 1969, and highlights of current research that keeps pace with changing trends in the industry.

Dust control

A vital health concern in underground coal mining has been the exposure to respirable coal and silica dust. NIOSH research has led to a number of developments for controlling generated dust. These include:

  • The development of machine-mounted water sprays and improved ventilation.
  • Improved dust collectors.

Strata control

Supporting the rock strata (or roof) that overlays openings in underground coal mines is crucial to the safety of workers. Roof bolting, a roof support technology developed by the NIOSH program when it was part of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, has proven itself effective in preventing roof fall fatalities. Advancements since 1969 that were stimulated by this research include:

Automated temporary roof supports for use on roof bolting machines that have eliminated the need for machine operators to work under an unsupported roof.

Lighter weight support materials that reduce strains and sprains from lifting and moving roof supports into place.

Control of Methane Gas

The accumulation of methane gas in underground mines can lead to devastating mine explosions. Research by the Bureau of Mines, now NIOSH, introduced mine operators to techniques which allowed them to determine the gassiness of coal beds. Through the use of computer models and analytical methods, NIOSH researchers can predict methane control needs. NIOSH developed new methods for the control of methane including surface drainage of coal beds through vertical boreholes, and underground drainage of gas through long horizontal holes underground.

Mine Emergency Response

Prior to 1969, underground coal miners carried self-rescue breathing devices designed to protect miners against deadly carbon monoxide exposure for about one-half hour in the event of a mine fire or explosion. Following the passage of the 1969 Act, NIOSH research led to the development of a one hour oxygen supply , providing the miner with additional time to escape following a mine fire or explosion.

Mine Fires and Explosions

After 1969, new research provided insight on the ways in which gases, fluids, and dusts burn in mines. Research efforts also focused on the relative merits of using flame inhibitors and the effectiveness of quenching agents and high-expansion foam. Large-scale research in a world-class experimental mine at the NIOSH facility in Pennsylvania produced important baseline information on the origin, growth, and suppression of fires and explosions. Among other achievements, the program:

  • Successfully tested passive barriers that were designed to disperse quenching agents under the action of an oncoming explosion.
  • Developed better cutting bits, directed – water sprays, and machine-mounted ignition suppression systems to combat the growing problem of frictional methane ignitions associated with modern, mechanized coal cutting equipment.

Industrial-type Hazards

NIOSH conducts research on industrial-type hazards in coal mining (including hazards related to heavy equipment, electrical systems, explosives, and physical labor), using a double approach 1) human aspects, to develop a heightened awareness of safety problems such as recognition of unstable ground and training dealing with perceived hazards, 2) to provide a better working environment through:

  • Safer equipment and electric power systems, better lighting, and machine-mounted monitoring systems.
  • The elimination of spark ignitions and electrical shock, and the development of explosion-proof electrical housings, intrinsically safe hardware, circuit breakers, and cable-fault detectors.


NIOSH explosives research has focused on identifying factors that influence the safety and performance of explosives, and other blasting agents, as well as developing innovative explosives and evaluating products that are developed as candidates for use as permissible explosives. A NIOSH – developed sheathed rock-breaker explosive charge is commercially available for unconfined underground coal mine blasting. The rock-breaker has become the suitable alternative to the hazardous practice of mudcapping, whereby an explosive was placed on top of a rock and covered with mud or earth.

Noise Exposure

A major problem in the mining industry is hearing loss. NIOSH research has focused on the development of noise controls for mining equipment. New communication and training tools are being developed to inform miners of ways to protect their hearing.

In the 35 years since the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 was signed into law in December 1969, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has led strategic research with diverse partners in the coal mining community to protect coal miners from death, disability, and impairment.

Among other initiatives, the 1969 legislation created the Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program, a program administered by NIOSH to monitor the prevalence of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, also known as black lung disease. Working with its partners, NIOSH has made great strides in research to understand, measure the incidence of, and prevent black lung. These efforts are led by NIOSH’s facility in Morgantown , W.Va. The Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program has been instrumental in carrying out research and procedures for:

  • Identifying evidence of black lung disease in miners in time to prevent further impairment in individuals.
  • Detecting numbers and trends in black lung disease cases to help prevent future cases.

Three components of the Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program are the Coal Workers’ X-Ray Surveillance Program, the B-Reader Certification Program, and the National Coal Workers’ Autopsy Study.

Coal-Workers’ X-Ray Surveillance Program

Under the health surveillance program established by the 1969 Act, miners are offered the opportunity of having chest X-rays taken at no charge to them. Pursuant to the Act, a miner has the option of transferring to a less dusty job if the X-ray shows evidence of black lung disease. NIOSH has the responsibility of assuring that hospitals and clinics participating in the X-ray program provide accurate and reliable X-rays, by evaluating their X-ray machines. NIOSH also uses these findings of the prevalence of black lung cases to identify patterns or trends in the disease. This information can provide a basis for strategies to prevent further cases from occurring. Currently, 154 facilities with 226 X-ray machines are approved by NIOSH.

Overall, the number of chest X-rays showing evidence of black lung disease has declined from 13,259 X-rays (out of a population of 152,066 underground coal miners) during 1970-1974 to 604 X-rays (out of a population of 31,826 underground coal miners) in 2000 to 2004 to date. NIOSH findings indicate a continuing decline in black lung prevalence for underground miners with greater than 20 years of mining work, but no clear trend for those with less than 20 years of mining work. Despite progress in reducing the prevalence of the disease since 1969, black lung continues to occur in coal mining. This highlights the importance of continued NIOSH research on black lung surveillance and prevention.

B-Reader Program

The 1969 legislation also established a program for certifying doctors and radiologists to evaluate and classify chest X-rays for medical screening, health surveillance, research, and compensation. Those specialists are called B-Readers. NIOSH has the responsibility for certifying B-Readers by determining whether they are proficient in classifying chest X-rays for black lung disease. Upon certification, a B-Reader must recertify through NIOSH every four years. Currently, 494 B-Readers are certified.

For additional information about the B-Reader Program, visit. NIOSH continues to evaluate the B-reader program to assure that it remains current with modern technologies and current needs, and that meaningful information about the program is available to stakeholders and the general public.

National Coal Workers’ Autopsy Study

The National Coal Workers’ Autopsy Study provides families of deceased underground coal miners with the opportunity to request an autopsy of the deceased, at no charge to the family. The autopsy may determine whether the lungs of the deceased show pathologic evidence of black lung disease. The results may help support a claim by the miner’s survivors for black lung compensation benefits. The results also are important for NIOSH research to prevent further cases of black lung. For example:

  • Studies of lung tissue specimens have helped researchers differentiate the signs of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis from other lung diseases, such as those caused by smoking.
  • Advanced research on tissue specimens has helped scientists better understand individuals’ susceptibility to black lung disease.

For more information regarding the National Coal Workers’ Autopsy Study, refer to the web site.

Current Initiatives in the Coal Workers’ Health Surveillance Program

The key to the success of the coal workers surveillance program is continuous quality assurance. NIOSH is taking several steps with partners to make sure that the program keeps pace with current needs in the coal mining industry, that miners and mine operators are aware of services and duties under the program, and that the technical aspects of the program remain up-to-date:

  • NIOSH revised the notification letters that are sent to miners advising them of the final determination as to whether their X-ray showed evidence of black lung disease. The new letters, along with a newly developed resource guide, are more reader-friendly.
  • NIOSH has created a new exhibit showcasing the coal workers’ health surveillance program. The exhibit is displayed at conferences and industry coal shows to make miners and mine operators more aware of the program. A new poster and website also have been created to better disseminate information about the health surveillance program; see. NIOSH has distributed the poster to all NIOSH-approved X-ray facilities and to all active mine sites.
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  • NIOSH modified the B-Reader examinations and the program syllabus to ensure that the B-Reader program is compatible with the latest international technical specifications by the International Labour Office.

Page last reviewed: July 22, 2015