Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)


July 1, 2013

Safer mines

Evidence indicates more are following the letter of the law

ASHLAND — The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration reported U.S. mining operations had the lowest death and injury rates in 2012 in the agency’s history last year with 36 on-the-job fatalities. Is that because about 100 fewer coal mines were in operation last year, or because mine safety regulations were being more effectively enforced by inspectors and mining companies were putting a greater emphasis on safety? It is likely a combination of the two, but it also is clear that mines are putting greater emphasis on safety than they ever have.

MSHA reports the number of working miners in all types of  mines declined from a decades-long high of 143,437 in 2011 to 137,650 last year. While it makes sense that fewer miners should result in fewer mining deaths and injuries, MSHA is quick to point out that the number of miners working 2012 were the second highest for mining employment since 1984.

Because of that, MSHA director Joe Main credits the decline in deaths and injuries to tougher enforcement measures and to actions taken by industry. This newspaper has previously praised Main for MSHA doing more frequent and effective inspections of mines under his leadership.

“It’s a job that’s never done, as long as miners are getting injured, as long as miners are getting killed,” Main said. However, “I think we are moving in the right direction when you look at all the fundamental data that we have.”

MSHA is focused on internal improvements and on better education and outreach, Main said.

Of the 36 mining deaths in 2012, 20 workers died in accidents related to coal mining. That’s the  second-lowest number ever. The fatality rate was .0159 deaths per 200,000 hours worked, also the second-lowest ever recorded. The rate of reported injuries at coal mines was 3.16 per 200,000 hours worked, a record low.

MSHA says the number of citations and orders issued at coal mines declined 15 percent, from 93,330 in 2011 to 79,250 last year. That’s a positive sign that fewer mines are cutting costs by ignoring safety. The fact that many of the mines that closed last year were small mines that have always been among the most likely to ignore safety to save money can also be attributed to the fewer deaths and injuries. Surface mining is much safer than. underground mining and usually less expensive. High operating costs forced many deep mines to close in 2012. Of course the downside is surface mines cause far more environmental damage than underground mines.

Coal mining was not the only type of mining to have safe years in 2012. In metal and nonmetal mining, MSHA said the record-low fatality rate for last year was .0079 deaths per 200,000 hours worked. Sixteen miners died in on-the-job accidents in those operations, tying 2011 results. While the number of metal and nonmetal mines remained steady in 2012, the number of working miners increased from nearly 238,000 to more than 250,228 last year.

MSHA took several steps to improve its enforcement of safety regulations after the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion killed 29 men in southern West Virginia. They include monthly impact inspections of problem mines and “Rules to Live By” issued last year.

“I do think there’s a cultural change in the industry that’s being driven by a lot of what we’re doing,” Main said. “Where there was everyone waiting for government to make you do something, we’ve now got some proactiveness. ... We hope it continues along this path.”

Mining will always be one of the most dangerous occupations, but for whatever the reason, mining is safer than ever in the U.S. Any which way one looks at it, that’s a positive.

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