Workplace Deaths Among Miners Rose In 2013

CREDIT: AP/Janie Osborne

A mine employee stands in the entry of the Signal Peak Energy mine in Roundup, Montana on November 9, 2010.

The number of deaths among miners caused by work-related accidents in 2013 increased to 42 last year, up from 36 in 2012, according to the latest Department of Labor (DOL) data. Twenty of last year’s deaths occurred in coal mines and 22 in metal or nonmetal facilities, compared to 20 and 16, respectively, the year before.

Mining deaths were at a record low rate for the first three quarters of the year, but then they saw a “significant increase” in the fourth quarter compared to the same period the year before, with the death of six coal miners and nine in metal or nonmetal mines. That included the deaths of three coal miners in as many days in October, a string of consecutive incidents that hasn’t happened in a decade. Comparatively, four coal miners and two metal or nonmetal miners died in the same period in 2012.

The most common cause of mining accidents last year involved machinery and powered haulage equipment. West Virginia saw the most mining deaths at six, while Kentucky had the most deaths in other types of mines at four. “Mining deaths are preventable, and those that occurred in 2013 are no exception,” Joseph A. Main, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said in the DOL’s statement.

In fact, the safety precautions that could prevent these deaths are often lacking. Inadequate plan reviews for ventilation, controlling the roofs of underground mines, and other issues by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) have been linked to several mine disasters, such as the one at the Upper Big Branch Mine that killed 29 people. The Colorado mine where two workers died in November has an accident rate more than twice the national average. That mine also received 11 citations from MSHA in 2013, paying nearly $4,000 in penalties.

Yet MSHA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the agencies meant to ensure worker safety and prevent these unnecessary deaths and accidents, have long been starved of funding and hampered by a lack of resources. President Obama’s budget called for lower MSHA funding, and in the light of a smaller budget the agency said it will focus on enforcing health and safety standards in coal mines and inspections of non-coal mines while reducing resources for reviewing plans, offering information, and conducting education and training. OSHA has fared even worse, unable to hire and retain inspectors in part due to low pay and conducting so few workplace inspections that the average site will only see an inspector every 99 years. If these agencies aren’t shielded from cuts in the current budget allocation process, things could get a whole lot worse.

Mining isn’t the only industry to experience workplace fatalities. An average of 13 workers died on the job every day in 2011. Last year saw a string of deadly accidents in other industrial facilities, including the fertilizer plant explosion that killed 14 people in West, Texas, as well as two other chemical plant explosions in Louisiana, a grain plant accident in Indiana, and a gas tank plant explosion in Florida.