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Remembering one of the deadliest work accidents in U.S. history

With Thanksgiving coming up later this week, many Americans are evaluating their current situations and their histories with the ultimate goal of cultivating gratitude. We can be thankful for what we have now and grateful for the challenges we have overcome.

This kind of perspective is also important when thinking about workplace safety. A somber anniversary marked last week suggests that the average person's workplace is much safer today than it was decades ago. At the same, time, it serves as a reminder that we must preserve workplace safety regulations and the integrity of workers' compensation programs.

On November 20, 1968, a total of 78 miners were killed when a West Virginia coal mine experienced several powerful explosions. The accident and its aftermath were such that the bodies of the 78 workers could not be recovered from the now-sealed mine.

According to the History Channel's website, the six-mile by 8-mile coal mine had just two working ventilators in it. It also sat on top of untapped oil and natural gas deposits. In the early morning hours of November 20, the mine was bombarded with the first in a series of methane gas explosions.

One of the first explosions was powerful enough to destroy a lamp house near the entrance of the mine. This structure had contained the list of late-shift workers on duty at the time, which meant that there was no easy way to determine which workers may have been trapped inside. To compile the list, rescue crews had to survey the families of miners.

A year later, federal legislators passed the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act. Some who gave testimony in front of Congress prior to the bill's passage were widows of the men killed in the West Virginia mine explosion. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration would be established two years later, in 1971.

Fatal accidents of this magnitude may seem like a relic of the distant past, but this explosion occurred less than a half-century ago. And although it occurred in West Virginia, there are plenty of examples of horrible workplace accidents from here in Colorado and other parts of the country. With the eroding of workers' compensation protections in so many states, it is reasonable to fear that such accidents could happen again.

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, we can and should feel grateful for the progress America's workers have made. That being said, we must not assume that the struggle is over. The preservation of workplace safety and workers' rights requires constant vigilance.

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