Coal Tattoo

Is a record low for mining deaths enough?

Mine Explosion Inspections

In this file April 5, 2011, file photo, Jami Cash, daughter of dead coal miner Michael Elswick, attends a vigil following the Upper Big Branch Memorial Service in Whitesville, W.Va., for  the 29 coal miners killed in an explosion at the mine in Montcoal, W.Va.  (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner, File)

It wasn’t even Christmas yet in 2014 before the folks at The Associated Press were jumping to proclaim it the safest year ever for coal-mining in the United States. Here’s the story, which in my absence for a h0liday vacation, ran on the front page of the Gazette:

Less than five years after an explosion fueled by excess coal dust killed 29 men deep inside a West Virginia underground mine, the nation’s coal mines are on pace for a record low in work-related deaths.

Federal mine safety officials credit changes they’ve made since the Upper Big Branch disaster in April 2010. They point to their more aggressive use of team inspections at problem sites and other measures, which they say have fostered more responsible behavior below ground.

“I do think we’re seeing a cultural change in the mining industry that’s for the better,” Assistant Labor Secretary Joseph Main, who heads the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, told The Associated Press.

As I’ve been catching up on the news I missed, it was interesting to see that longtime mine safety advocate Tony Oppegard had this to say on Facebook about the AP story:

With all due respect to my longtime buddy Joe Main, I don’t think the lower death rate in U.S. coal mines is due to a “cultural change” among mine operators. Nor do I agree with Bruce Watzman’s laughable assessment that the mining industry goes above & beyond what the federal mine safety law requires in order to safeguard its workers… The fact of the matter is that mining deaths have decreased primarily because the number of coal miners in the most problematic states – West Virginia and Kentucky – has decreased dramatically. That being said, Joe Main still deserves credit for making “blitzes” a regular MSHA enforcement tool. Blitzes, and the threat of blitzes, keep doghole mines on their toes…

Personally, as I’ve written before on this blog, I’m a little too superstitious for stories that predict the year-end death count for coal miners before the year is over yet. And in fact, right after this story came out, MSHA made a “chargeability” decision on a West Virginia mining death that increased the year-end total to 16 in the coal sector of the mining industry.


That MSHA decision — concerning the death of a security guard at a Kanawha County operation (see also here and here) — pushed the number of West Virginia coal-mining deaths in the federal count to 4 for 2014.

That’s not a record low for West Virginia. It’s a remarkable number, no doubt. But a remarkably low number doesn’t mean much to the families of those four miners who did die last year in our state.

Yesterday, MSHA issued its press release summarizing the preliminary numbers for last year:

Preliminary data released by the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration indicates that 40 miners died in work-related accidents at the nation’s mines in 2014, two fewer than in the previous year.* Coal mining deaths dropped from 20 in 2013 to 16 in 2014, the lowest annual number of coal mining deaths ever recorded in the United States. The previous record low was 18 in 2009.

The most important line in the whole release was this one from Joe Main:

Mining deaths are preventable, and those that occurred in 2014 are no exception.