The number of workers who died last year in work-related accidents at mining operations nationwide was the second lowest on record.
Last year, 36 workers died in mine accidents, 19 at coal mines and 17 at metal and nonmetal mines, according to preliminary information from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Pennsylvania, which ranks fourth in coal production nationwide, saw its third consecutive year of zero coal mine fatalities.
“Of all miners working in mines last year, fewer lost their lives in mining accidents and more returned home safely to their family and friends at the end of their shifts,” Joe Main, head of the MSHA and a Greene County native, said in a release.
“While mining deaths and injuries, due to the efforts of all in the mining industry, have reached historic lows, more actions are needed to prevent mining injuries, illnesses and deaths,” he said.
Of the 36 deaths last year, seven were in West Virginia, five in Kentucky, three each in New York and Alabama, two each in Montana and Florida and one each in Arizona, California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Nebraska, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Virginia.
According to MSHA, the leading cause of fatalities involved powered haulages, which include motor and rail cars, trucks, conveyors, shuttle cars, front-end loaders and cranes. Accidents involving powered haulages claimed the lives of 10 miners.
Other causes included machinery accidents, which killed six; slip or fall accidents, which also claimed six lives; and rib falls, which killed three miners.
Training for miners also continues to be an issue, Main said. Last year, eight deaths involved miners with one year or less experience at the mine, and 13 deaths involved miners with one year or less at the specific job or task.
“These numbers underscore that effective and appropriate training, particularly task training, needs to be provided to miners before they perform a new task,” he said.
Fatalities are preventable, Main said.
The year the Federal Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 passed, 273 miners died in work-related accidents. Since that time, fatality numbers have steadily declined.
The record low number of mining deaths occurred in 2009, when 35 workers were killed, 17 at metal and nonmetal mines and 18 at coal mines.
In 2010, the number of fatalities jumped as the industry recorded 71 deaths: 48 at coal operations and 23 at metal and nonmetal operations. Of the coal mining fatalities, 29 resulted from the explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in West Virginia.
In 2011, 37 miners died as a result of work-related accidents, 16 in metal and non-metal mines and 21 in coal mines.
MSHA has undertaken a number of measures in the last three years to prevent mining deaths, Main said.
They include increased enforcement through impact inspections at mines with poor compliance histories, enhanced pattern of violations actions and special initiatives such as “Rules to Live By” that focuses on the most common causes of mining deaths.
“In order to prevent mine deaths, operators must have in place effective safety and health management programs that are constantly evaluated, find-and-fix programs to identify and eliminate mine hazards and training for all mining personnel,” he said.
Pennsylvania saw its third consecutive year of zero coal mining deaths.
The state’s last mine fatality was at a nonmetal operation. It occurred in December 2011 at a stone crushing operation in New Milford. The last coal fatality was in June 2009 at the Bailey Mine in Greene County.
“We’ve always been committed to zero fatalities,” said George Ellis, president of the Pennsylvania Coal Alliance. He attributed the state’s record to “the 24-7 commitment to mine safety by workers and management employees.”
During the years, the industry has evolved, adopting new technology and procedures to make the mines more safe, he said. “We always have said,” Ellis added, “a safe mine is a productive mine and a productive mine is a safe mine.”
Ed Yankovich, president of District 2 of the United Mine Workers, said he only hopes the trend in mine fatalities will continue. “The goal is always to get to the point where we go a year without having any fatalities,” he said.
Yankovich said the explosion at Upper Big Branch had focused attention on problems in the industry. He also credited Main for increasing enforcement of mining laws. “They’ve embarked on much stricter enforcement of mining laws and that has helped,” he said.
However, even one death is too many and more can be done particularly to strengthen laws regarding mine safety, Yankovich said. “Congress needs to act to make mines safer, then we may get to the point where there are no fatalities,” he said.