New study details safety advantage of union mines

May 25, 2011 by Ken Ward Jr.

Dave Thearle, a member of the United Mine Workers of America, waves an American Flag during a labor rally in Waynesburg, Pa., Friday, April 1, 2011.  (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

There’s a new study out from a Stanford Law School professor that addresses an issue that comes up quite often here on Coal Tattoo: Whether union coal mines are safer than non-union operations.

The conclusion? Here’s what professor Alison D. Morantz concludes:

Although the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) has always advocated strongly for miners’ safety, prior empirical literature contains no evidence that unionization reduced mine injuries or fatalities during the 1970s and ‘80s. This study uses a more comprehensive dataset and updated methodology to examine the relationship between unionization and underground, bituminous coal mine safety from 1993 to 2008.

I find that unionization predicts a substantial and significant decline in traumatic mining injuries and fatalities, the two measures that I argue are the least prone to reporting bias. These disparities are especially pronounced among larger mines.

My best estimates imply that overall, unionization predicts an 18-33% drop in traumatic injuries and a 27-68% drop in fatalities. However, unionization is also associated with higher total and non-traumatic injuries, suggesting that injury reporting practices differ substantially between union and nonunion mines. Unionization’s attenuating effect on the predicted frequency of traumatic injuries seems to have grown since the mid 1990s.

You can read the whole study by visiting this link and clicking where it says “One Click Download.” The paper is called “Coal Mine Safety: Do Unions Make a Difference?” Morantz, by the way, is a former union-side labor lawyer, and this paper was produced as part of the John M. Olin Program in Law and Economics at Stanford.

15 Responses to “New study details safety advantage of union mines”

  1. Casey says:

    The study only looked at underground mines. I would be interested in in the results of this study if done by region. It seems that a large amount of the union underground mining is done in Northern App and the union free mining done in Central App. Northern App mining is done mostly in the consistent and high coal of the Pittsburgh seam while Central App is mining a bunch of erratic seams that are low. Even the average seam height per the study, which included all of the U.S., had a higher seam height in the union mines of 1.2 feet.

    Plus as the author stated “some epidemiological literature on the frequency of accidents by age group suggests that younger and less experienced miners sustain more injuries on the job” and “if the distribution of age or experience differs substantially across union and nonunion mines—and if such differentials independently affect miners’ likelihood of sustaining traumatic or fatal injuries – this could bias my results.” Southern App has a lot of young, less experienced miners.

    I think the geology has a lot to do with the author’s results. Previous studies did not reach the same conclusion that she did. As unionization decreased in Central App over time, the concentration of the union in Northern App may help to explain her conclusion.

  2. Phil Smith says:

    Casey: Don’t know when you were last at a mine in northern App, but I can tell you that there are more under-30 miners there than over-50 miners, and that has been true for several years. Indeed, a company HR person at a labor-management meeting I attended a couple of months ago said the average age at the northern App mine in question was now 26 years old.

    I would also point out that the major turnover in miners’ age didn’t really start happening until 5 years ago or so, no matter what region one looks at.

    I also would say that the notion that “geology” makes a difference in injury and fatality rates buys into the false notion that there are some places where and some times when there is nothing we can do to keep miners safe.

    That’s old-style thinking that has no place in the modern mining industry. There is always something that can be done better to keep miners safe, and it requires participation from all three partners in the mining community — the company, the government and the miners themselves. What this study shows is that when the miners themselves can play a full role in that partnership through the voice of the union — and not simply be told what to do and shut up about it — there is a significant difference in their safety.

    The UMWA and management at many of the mines where our members work are doing exactly that at mines in Northern, Central and Southern Appalachia, as well as the Midwest and Western U.S.

  3. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    I believe if you read the study, you’ll see that the author controlled for differences in geology.


  4. Casey says:

    I read the study but I do not see how you can “control” the data for geology other than the reported seam thickness. Even then this number is estimated and does not reflect thickness variations, coal splitting, slickensided top, stacked shale, seam rolls, washouts etc. Geology does make a difference and certainly the pinner man can’t feel everything in the top that needs addressed. Some mines have very boring geology (good) and some don’t. Also there is probably a regional difference in the pressures from the topography from 1) the cover creating vertical pressure and 2) the relief of the cover creating horizontal stresses.

    The study reflects data from 1993 to 2008 so if as you state the shift from older to younger did not start occurring until 5 years ago, or in 2006. So my point could be valid and would need further data to test for regional age differences. I still believe that it is a fair request to do the analysis by region to see if the skewing of data is partly responsible for the reported results.

    I certainly believe in three partner participation but it would be naive to think that this occurs only at union mines.

    Was the study funded by a group?

  5. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    You asked about the funding, and the study explains:

    This project was funded by a contract from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health Contract # 200-2009-28820).

    That’s on Page 2.

    I believe the data is posted here, … Can we expect you to analyze it by region for us?


  6. Phil Smith says:


    My point is that the only time the workers can say “no, we’re not doing that because we don’t believe it’s safe” when confronted with a safety issue the company and even the agency decides is OK is in a union mine. That’s not naivety, that’s fact.

    Based on what the published testimony is coming from the UBB interviews, had the workers had the option to speak freely about the safety issues and as a group refuse to work until things were made safe, things would have been very different at that mine.

    The study was funded by a grant from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH).

  7. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Given your belief that workers at union mines feel they can report safety problems without fear of punishment … how do you explain the ongoing criminal investigation of the UMWA-represented Patriot Federal No. 2 Mine, where at least one employee has testified that he faked safety examinations because he was afraid he would lose his job if he didn’t?


  8. Phil Smith says:

    Ken: The person who testified to that at Federal 2 was a management foreman, not a union member. He did not have the same protections a union member has — essentially, he was an at-will employee who could be fired at any time for any reason, just as others without a union contract can be.

    Perhaps I should be more clear in my comments to make sure that when I’m talking about workers, I’m talking about hourly workers. The UMWA and nearly every other labor union doesn’t allow management employees into our organization, so they don’t get the same protections our members do.

  9. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Wouldn’t the culture of safety encouraged by the UMWA have helped this management employee be able to stand up to such pressure?

    According to testimony in that case, this faking of safety examinations went on for quite some time — apparently without being reported to authorities by UMWA members at that mine.

    As you know, that mine has been held up by your organization and others as model … given all of that, how can this have happened there?


  10. Soyedina says:

    Casey are there people in your company or organizations who could do these statistics? Alternatively, you could contact the authors of this study and ask them how including these factors might change the results and whether this would alter their conclusions.

    After all, saying “it could be this, this, this and that” doesn’t actually provide any evidence that it is “this, this, this or that”. Or that it is not. There are straightforward statistical procedures that can provide indirect answers to your questions if you have the data.

    Indirect, because direct causation of accidents is beyond the scope of any study. Similarly, this applies to epidemiological, water quality, flood events, or any study of real world events that aren’t performed in a carefully controlled environment. Causal narratives are not a potential product of correlative studies, but if your concerns are addressed in a hypothesis testing framework, it’s possible to, at the very least, rule out some contributing factors.

    It’s not enough to just point to point at some unmeasured variables and then use that to negate the conclusions… it doesn’t actually negate the conclusions. But if you are right then you or someone you know can demonstrate this. And that’s science!

  11. Phil Smith says:

    Ken: I repeat, management employees have no protection, no matter what the culture is with respect to hourly workers. But before we go too far down this road, let me point out that I don’t speak for him. I think your question with respect to his feeling pressure to do what he says he did is better directed to Patriot management, not me.

    Your question as to “how could all of this have happened there” is also better directed at management than me, since it was their people who engaged in this behavior.

  12. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    If you read the McAteer report on UBB, you’ll see that many of the people who testified about safety problems that they felt they could do little about were technically “management” employees … they were lower-level foremen or firebosses who would not have UMWA protection even if that mine had been unionized.

    Your comments here suggest that unionization wouldn’t have been much help to those men.


  13. Phil Smith says:

    Ken, you never like us to deal in speculation on this blog, so I won’t speculate as to what may or may not have happened at UBB had it been a unionized mine. I will just point out that when there are major ventilation issues at mines where we represent the hourly workers, as there have been at Federal #2, as there have been at Blacksville #2, as there have been at Loveridge, as there have been at Pinnacle Mine #50 and in numerous other places throughout the United States,we pull our people out of the mine well before conditions get to anything like what they were at UBB. And that would mean that the lower-level foremen would be out of the mine as well in case something bad happened. I think those men at UBB would have considered that to be of help.

    “Technically?” Either you are an hourly employee or you aren’t. Meaning you are eligible to be represented by the UMWA or you aren’t. There isn’t much technical about it.

  14. Ken Ward Jr. says:


    Since I’m speculating … What would a UMWA safety committee do at a union mine if a lower-level management person came to the committee and said they were concerned about safety issues, but afraid to formally raise them for fear of losing their job?

    Obviously, that person isn’t a UMWA member, but their concerns impact your members and the safety of everyone at the operation.

    I can’t but imagine that the committee at that mine would try to offer some support, but I’m wondering if there is any standard way such a situation would be handled. Would the committee look into the concerns being raised and, if they are legitimate, then raise those concerns itself with the operator?

    One other thing I wonder is if, given the terrible year last year, your organizers are finding that talking about the safety protections the UMWA provides to members is having more of an impact on organizing drives that previously.


  15. David Yard says:

    Ken, keep up the good work. I was fortunate enough to work in a union mine, as a part of the Mine Safety Committee and as a UMWA-represented mine examiner. I shudder to think what things would have been like in the mine without US!

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