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to gain acceptance for the basic principle of disability insurance. As with old age insurance, officials planned on starting with a fairly limited program and later making DI benefits more generous and more widely available. After 1956, they worked hard to make incremental improvements and cope with the complicated administrative challenges inherent in a disability program (Derthick 1979, 1990; Berkowitz 1987). Doing so left little time or energy for fundamental reform that might include changes to workers’ compensation. In retrospect, the decision to create a separate disability program was a turning point in the development of workers’ compensation. Since the 1950s, any move towards greater national involvement in workers’ compensation has been linked not to social insurance but to occupational safety and health.


In December 1969, Congress approved and President Nixon reluctantly signed a bill to extend benefits to victims of black lung (pneumoconiosis), a common and often fatal occupational disease of coal miners.22 This program was, and still is, the national government’s only formal intrusion into the realm of workers’ compensation since the 1920s. The question is why national officials made an exception in this case, and how they were able to triumph over stakeholders at the state level.

By way of background, it is important to remember that the national government already operated two long-standing workers’ compensation programs (Nordlund 1992; Lencsis 1998). The first, passed in 1908 and expanded in 1916, provided coverage to employees of the national government. It was administered initially by the Department of Commerce and Labor, then an independent commission. Since 1950, responsibility has been housed in the Labor Department – which may have reinforced the image in Washington of workers’ compensation as an occupational program rather than social insurance. The second program, created in 1927, was designed to cover workers engaged in interstate commerce who were not covered by any state compensation program. In neither case, however, did the government extend coverage to civilians working within individual states. The Black Lung program did just that.

The most visible trigger for national involvement was a disastrous explosion in a Farmington, West Virginia coal mine. For ten days in November 1968, the nation waited and watched as rescue crews tried to free 99 miners trapped underground. Seventy-eight of those miners died. This was not an isolated tragedy. A total of 150 West Virginia coal miners died on the job that year, and another 159 coal miners died in 12 other states. The rate of on-the-job fatalities in the late 1960s was approximately eight times higher for coal miners than for the rest of the workforce. 23

In September of 1968, President Johnson had proposed new health and safety regulations for coal mines. Members of Congress initially did nothing, but in the wake of the Farmington disaster they quickly made the topic a priority for their next session.24 In a


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