In January, 12 miners were killed and one seriously injured at the Sago mine in Tallmansville, W.Va. On the whole the coal mining industry has become safer since the creation of the Mine Safety and Health Administration in 1978. In that year accidents caused 242 miner deaths. In recent years deaths have trended slightly more than 50 annually.
For the coal mining sector in particular, from 1978 to 2004, deaths declined from about 140 annually to about 30. The rate of lost time injuries also declined.
In 2003, the fatality rate was 34.6 deaths per 100,000 workers, down from 231 in 1944, the peak of coal-mining employment in the 20th century.
Ellen Smith, publisher of "Mine Safety and Health News," says that three main factors are behind the decline in deaths and injuries. Mining has shifted toward more surface extraction, which is less dangerous than underground work. Mechanization has also reduced the number of workers exposed to accidents. Better technology in roof support has helped too.
Large corporations, on the whole, have better safety records than small mines. Small operators tend to exhibit less commitment to safety, similar to owner-operated businesses in logging, fishing and piloting.
MSHA makes public the injury and fatality records of individual mines.
The Sago mine had a poor safety record prior to the disaster. According to Smith, who analyzed the injury data for numerous mines, Sago had three times the average injury rate of the coal industry. But Sago's corporate parent, International Coal Group, had a safety record about average for the coal industry when all of its operations were combined.
May 1, 2006
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