New calls for mine safety

Mining safety in America demands renewed attention in the light of recent additions to a sad record. For all the measures that have dramatically reduced the tolls of the century's early years, safety appears to be declining again. The past week's episodes in three states make this year's fatality record the worst since 1975. It should provide impetus against delays in introducing mandated safety equipment -- and against efforts to cut back federal safety enforcement.

There are explanations but really no excuse for United States miners not to have the kind of equipment long available in the European mining industry. Court battles at first hung up the implementation of the 1977 mining safety act requiring self-contained self-rescue equipment. Manufacturers held off producing the specified oxygen-generating devices while they waited to see if industry was successful in avoiding them. Only last June was the go-ahead finally obtained, and then the mines were given further time while the manufacturers caught up.

As for efforts to cut federal enforcement funding, a congressional attempt at a 50 percent reduction was turned back even before the recent accidents. At this moment the administration's requested funding for the Mine Safety and Health Administration seems closely achieved. But attrition was already having an effect on enforcement capabilities. And the battle against reductions will probably have to be undertaken again.

No doubt efficiencies in enforcement can be improved. But safety in the nation's statistically most dangerous industry should not become a fiscal football.

Measures need to be taken not only against headline disasters such as explosions and roof collapse but against lesser known problems. For example, accidents of ''powered haulage'' -- transportation within the mines -- have recently become the major cause of fatalities. New big-capacity equipment is blamed for causing increased methane-igniting incidents.

Safety can be bolstered at several levels -- from the individual's own prudence to company responsibility, union responsibility, state law, and federal law.

Union safety inspectors provide an extra check on goverment monitoring. No miner should be at a safety disadvantage for not belonging to a union. This is where industry integrity and government vigor must be fully exercised on behalf of all.

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