In late January, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration issued a press release that touted an “all-time low” in U.S. mining fatality rates. Oddly enough, the news release didn’t include the actual rate. Only when asked for the actual figures did MSHA say that the agency was talking about all mining sectors and that the preliminary figure was 0.0111 deaths per 200,000 hours worked. MSHA said at the time that breakdowns for the coal and metal/nonmetal sectors weren’t available.
Well, yesterday, MSHA finally released the breakdowns, in another news release that again touted “the lowest fatality and injury rates in the history of U.S. mining. ” The MSHA release went on to explain:
In 2012, the fatality rate was .0107 deaths per 200,000 hours worked. The rate of reported injuries was 2.56 per 200,000 hour worked. These reductions replace the prior year’s record historical low rates.
Although the number of mines in the U.S. decreased slightly (from 14,176 in 2011 to 14,058 in 2012), the number of miners increased from 381,209 to 387,671. Thirty-five miners died on the job in 2012, tying the record low number of deaths in mining set in 2009. The number of citations and orders MSHA issued fell from 157,052 in 2011 to 140,007 in 2012, an 11 percent decrease.
But if you read on, and look at the more detailed figures that MSHA posted here, you’ll also see that this was not a record year for death rates in the coal industry. Coal’s death rate in 2012 was 0.0151 per 200,000 hours worked. That’s slightly better than the 0.0156 recorded in 2011 and good enough for second lowest in history, behind the 2009 rate of 0.148. MSHA’s only comment on that appeared to be this statement, included on their statistical page:
MSHA continues to work to bring fatalities down through strong enforcement, active outreach and education, and technical support to the mining industry.
Sure, the figures show improvement — and there’s absolutely no question that (as some industry officials like to remind us) the numbers of deaths in the coal-mining industry are a fraction of what they were decades ago. But let’s not forget that we’ve had eight coal-mining deaths so far across the country in 2013. Deaths are currently ahead of last year’s pace. Five of the deaths so far this year occurred in West Virginia. Between 2002 and so far in 2013, West Virginia recorded 128 coal-mining deaths, more than any other state. The next closest was Kentucky, with 86 deaths.
MSHA, of course, is in the midst of a public relations campaign to celebrate the passage of the 1977 amendments to the federal mine safety law, and that showed in yesterday’s press release:
These preliminary numbers clearly show that actions undertaken by MSHA and the mining industry continue to move mine safety in the right direction, with improvements in compliance with the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977, and a reduction in injury and fatality rates.
But that’s really not the issue, and MSHA chief Joe Main knows that. Just look at what Assistant Secretary Main said in February after a string of deaths in West Virginia’s coalfields:
The six deaths that occurred over the last month are tragic and unacceptable, and MSHA will take whatever actions are necessary to ensure the safety and well-being of all our miners.
The dispute today in the world of coal-mine safety is whether our society will truly make it unacceptable for coal miners to die on the job, or whether incremental improvements that barely move the needle on fatality rates will be good enough. You can see this clearly — and oddly enough — if you compare the comments of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin with those of CONSOL Energy President Nicholas DeIuliis.
Gov. Tomblin has stuck with his line about how “accidents do occur,” even when given the opportunity to clarify and to argue that any coal-mining death is not acceptable. CONSOL’s DeIuliis, on the other hand, made it clear again recently that his company’s goal is — and the entire industry’s goal should be — zero deaths and injuries:
We can’t be satisfied with just incremental improvements. The only acceptable result for everyone in the industry and everyone in the room should be zero fatalities and zero injuries.