LOUISVILLE, Ky. – The nation's coal mines are nearing a record low mark for on-the-job deaths for the third year in a row and have a chance to keep the number of fatal accidents in single digits for the first time.
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With just a day left in 2016, U.S. coal mines have recorded nine deaths. West Virginia had four, Kentucky had two and there was one each in Alabama, Illinois and Pennsylvania. The low number can be attributed to far fewer coal mining jobs and tougher enforcement of mining safety rules.
"We know consistently things are getting better," Mine Safety and Health Administration chief Joe Main said.
Industry cooperation has been crucial to making mines safer, he said, and "the angst that mine operators have with what (violations) we cite is dissipating as well."
Dozens of mines have shuttered in recent years, especially in Appalachia. In 2011, there were about 91,000 working miners in the U.S. compared with 2015 when there were about 66,000, the lowest figure since the Energy Information Administration began collecting data in 1978. The 2016 numbers are not yet available.
Fewer mines and a smaller workforce amounts to fewer deaths and injuries, but Main noted that in 2011 — before employment numbers started to drop — a low mark was set for fatalities at 20. That was also a year after the deadly explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia killed 29 miners.
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Previous lows in coal mining deaths were in 2014 with 16, and last year, with 11. For comparison, in 1966, the mining industry counted 233 deaths. A century ago there were 2,226.
Only one fatal accident was attributed to an explosion of gas or dust, which was to blame for the Upper Big Branch disaster. The lone explosion this year occurred July 29 at a Spartan Mining Company mine in Wyoming County, West Virginia.
Donald Workman, 58, and another miner were welding when they came in contact with methane at the surface of the mine, causing an ignition. Workman, who had worked in mines for 40 years, died six days after the blast.
Other deaths this year included wall collapses and a miner who crashed in a personal vehicle on an access road.
There have been 16 fatalities in 2016 in non-coal mines that produce gravel, sand, limestone and mineable metals. That mark also continued a downward trend, with 17 in 2015 and 30 in 2014.
Main said a lot of hard work by inspectors and industry leaders has gone into the three record-setting years. He also appeared to warn the incoming Trump administration against changing the successful formula.
"There's a lot of ingredients that went into the recipe to make the cake that we now have in terms of having the outcomes of the safest years in mining history," Main said. "If you start taking ingredients out of that, the cake's not going to be as good, I can tell you that."