Kentucky's mine deaths lead nation

WASHINGTON - Although the deaths this month of 14 West Virginia coal miners have prompted new calls for safety reforms, fatalities in America's mining operations have dropped to historically low levels in recent years.

Yet mining remains one of America's most dangerous occupations, especially in some parts of the country where deep-shaft bituminous coal is dug using increasingly sophisticated - and dangerous - machinery.

"Is enough being done to protect the men and women who risk their lives to provide the power and energy for this country?" Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said Monday during Senate hearings into the recent disasters. "After the tragic events unfolded in West Virginia's mines, everyone should finally agree the answer is no."

West Virginia has been spotlighted this month because of back-to-back tragedies at the mines in Sago and Logan County. But Kentucky leads the nation in mining deaths with 354 fatalities compared to the Mountain State's 271, according to figures compiled by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration for the period 1983 to 2004.

Forty-three states have suffered at least double-digit mining deaths during this time. Pennsylvania has lost 147 miners, followed by Virginia with 145, Utah with 85 and Illinois with 83.

Half the 2,243 mining-related fatalities reported during the 22-year period were soft-coal mining operations, although hundreds of people have died while digging for limestone, sand and gravel. Attempts to dig gold have cost 114 lives in recent years, nearly half of whom died in Nevada.

Mining has been one of the most dangerous occupations in world history. For hundreds of years, Roman and Greek prisoners were sentenced to labor in Europe's growing iron and copper mining industries as a certain, and usually swift, death sentence.

More than 3,500 miners lost their lives in the United States during a single year in 1911. Even in 1977, when Congress passed the Mine Safety and Health Act granting new federal safety enforcement powers to mining regulators, 272 miners died on the job.

But the number of mine-related deaths has dropped significantly since. Fatal mine accidents dropped to double-digits for the first time in 1992 when 97 men perished. By 2004, the number of deaths hit a historic low of just 55, although the number crept up to 57 last year, according to preliminary reports.

"A few short years ago, those numbers would have been laughed at as impossible goals," said David Dye, acting assistant secretary of labor for mine safety. "Our agency is constantly examining its strategies and looking at outcomes to determine how we can help the mining industry drive fatality, injury and illness rates down to zero."

Currently, the United States employs about 80,000 coal miners, down from an estimated 700,000 who worked the mines in the 1920s. The number of operational coal mines also has steadily declined during the last two decades.

But technological and mechanical advances have allowed fewer miners to set record production levels in recent years. The United States produced 1.11 billion tons of coal in 2004, a 4 percent increase over the year before.

The decline in mine fatalities is at least partly due to improved safety and not just declining numbers of mines and miners. Federal authorities report the fatal injury rate per 200,000 hours worked fell by 32 percent from 2000 through 2004.

The federal databases also describe a still brutally dangerous environment for miners. Falling rock, earth or man-made equipment have cost 562 lives since 1983, while 433 died when trapped and crushed by moving equipment and 177 were electrocuted by their heavy digging and extracting equipment. In all, 251 men and two women have died by asphyxiation or inhalation of noxious gases or chemicals.

The Jan. 2. Sago Mine explosion that left 12 men dead and one miner in critical condition is one of the worst single accidents in recent years. Two men died in Logan County, W.Va., late last week after a fire forced the evacuation of 19 others.

More than 88 percent of mining fatalities involved only one death.