Coal mine safety earned its way onto the congressional agenda for a number of reasons. For one, it ended up on the agenda primarily because of national exposure brought on by traumatic events. Causes end up on agendas for a number of reasons, but mostly, they end up there because something happens that makes it difficult or impossible for people in power to ignore the problem any long. With coal miners, the disasters that have taken place have put this issue on the agenda and given it an outsized importance in reality. In addition, the power of unions has made this issue agenda-worthy. Lastly, the issue ended up on the agenda because of the way in which it aligns with various important issues, including the push toward more environmental protection.
Starting with major coal mine disasters in West Virginia, this issue became very difficult to ignore. When hundreds of people are killed at once, the public takes notice. It does not much matter how those people die, only that they do. This put pressure on the federal government to listen to the survivors, since they were, in effect, the victims of a very high-profile tragedy. More important than just the fact that this was a one-off tragedy is the fact that things took place over and over. Specifically, the tragedy happened in the 1950s and many more took place all the way into the 2000s. This runs the risk of making lawmakers look foolish, as if they are either unresponsive to problems or unable to handle problems once those problems present themselves. The high-profile nature of these tragedies put the media blitz on, and it forced this issue on the agenda in a way that it might not have if the deaths had not occurred.
In addition, the organized nature of the labor movement helped to put this issue on the agenda. Given where the bulk of coal workers are located, it makes sense that there would be a strong union presence. Eastern Kentucky, West Virginia, and southern Illinois are all places where unions have a strong amount of pull. They put pressure on local and state governments, but they also have outsized influence in Washington, where they can be effective kingmakers for representatives in some districts. With this in mind, the unions helped to ensure that this issue would get the sort of attention that it deserved, also pressing lawmakers on what they were going to do. Without this kind of organized advocacy for the issue, the issue may have fallen off the agenda like many others. However, the almost-constant union pressure helped to keep lawmakers accountable, and at the very least required them to continue thinking up solutions for the issue.
Lastly, there was a connection between coal and a mounting movement in America. Because coalminers were afflicted with diseases like the Black Lung, there was a significant movement to attach this issue to environmentalism. Starting in the 1970s and continuing today, environmental issues have had a huge impact on legislators, especially on the Democratic side.
At the end of the day, coal miner safety has managed to work its way onto congressional agendas for a number of reasons. The high profile nature of the struggles faced by these people has helped to push the issue into the national consciousness when it might have just been a niche issue in places like West Virginia. In addition, the work of the unions and labor movement helped to put the kind of pressure on the federal government that ensured that they could not forget about the issue. Lastly, the issue of environmental protection has helped to give this issue some prescience, allowing some lawmakers to appear to be responsible based solely upon their support for the issue.