Coal Mine Fatalities Rise, Total Mine Deaths Fall in 2003

The mining industry is safe and growing safer, according to the National Mining Association (NMA), although a closer look at the data suggests the safety picture may be a bit more complicated.

Information officially released last week indicates that 2003 set the record for the lowest number of annual fatalities ever recorded in the U.S. mining industry: 55 fatalities in both mineral and coal mining during 2003, 12 fewer than in 2002, according to Jack Gerard NMA's president.

"This continued downward trend is the result of the ongoing applications of equipment and technology advances, improved engineering methods, and advanced training," asserted Gerard at a press briefing held Jan. 12 in Washington DC. "We're proud of that trend."

One indication of the importance NMA attaches to safety is that while the briefing was devoted largely to political and economic trends in the mining industry, Gerard opened the meeting with a detailed discussion of mine safety. In addition to the fatality numbers, he pointed out that the mining industry's incidence rate for non-fatal occupational injuries is lower than the rate for the wholesale/retail trade industry and many other business sectors.

But a closer look at the fatality numbers indicates a more complex picture of safety progress in the mining industry. For example, deaths in coal mines rose last year to 29, from 27 in 2002.

Fatality rates for coal mining and metal/nonmetal mines are not yet available for 2003, because of delays in compiling employment data. The recent trend suggests that while the fatality rate in metal/non-metal mines is declining, there is little change in the coal mining fatality rate.

According to data supplied by NMA, between 1997 and 2002, there has been a 34% decrease in fatalities in the metal/nonmetal sector, accompanied by a 7.5% decrease in employment. During the same period coal mining saw a 12.2 percent decline in employment but only a 10 percent decline in fatalities.

Preliminary numbers released by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) found that mining fatalities in 2003 were at their lowest level since statistics were first recorded in 1910.

"We are encouraged by three years of steady improvement, yet we will not be satisfied until every miner goes home safely to his or her family every working day," said Dave D. Lauriski, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health. "We must maintain focus and continue this progress."

Fatalities in the nation's metal and nonmetal mining sector dropped from 40 in 2002 to 26 in 2003. In the coal sector, mine fatalities totaled 29 in 2003 versus 27 in 2002.

For the first time since 1910, MSHA recorded no fatalities in December for the coal sector of the industry. December fatalities dropped from six in all mining sectors in 2002 to one in 2003 as MSHA continued its safety outreach campaign to alert miners about winter weather and the hazards it can bring to the workplace. Fatalities involving falls from the roofs of coal mines, previously a leading cause of deaths, dropped to two in 2003.

"Miners and the mining industry can be proud of their contribution to the new low record," Lauriski said. "More and more mines are making safety a value in every part of their operations each day, and this is moving us toward a true culture of prevention the key to improved performance."

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