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MSHA News Release No. 2000-0113
Mine Safety and Health Administration
Contact: Kathrine Snyder
Phone: (703) 235-1452

Released Thursday, January 13, 2000

U.S. MINERS GAINED SAFETY AND HEALTH GROUND IN 20th CENTURY

The 20th century has seen remarkable improvements in safety and health for U.S. miners, yet critical safety and health challenges face the industry as the new century begins, according to Davitt McAteer, assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health.

"The mining industry has come a long way from the early 1900s, when thousands of U.S. miners lost their lives each year to supply the nation with coal and minerals," McAteer said. "Yet miners still face the highest rate of death among major industrial sectors. Miners also suffer thousands of injuries and job-related illnesses each year. We can and must resolve to turn that around."

McAteer said he sees three major challenges for mine safety and health in the coming years: further reducing fatalities and other accidents, ending black lung and silicosis and responding to current economic trends that can affect miners' safety and health.

Federal agencies tallied 127,629 miners' lives lost in on-the-job accidents during the 1900s, although records for early in the century are incomplete. Coal mining deaths alone totaled 3,242 in 1907, that industry's worst year. The U.S. mining industry recorded 87 on-the-job deaths in 1999.

"The mining community has made safety progress in every sector," McAteer said. "In underground coal mining, for instance, the rate of fatal injuries declined more than 75 percent just from the 1960s to 1998." Fatal injury rates are based upon employee-hours worked and allow accurate comparisons between years despite fluctuating employment. Underground coal mines, traditionally the most hazardous sector of the mining industry, had fatal-injury rates higher than 0.20 per 200,000 employee-hours throughout most of the 1960s. In 1998, the fatal-injury rate for underground coal mines was 0.05.

"Despite this progress, we must not become complacent," McAteer said. "The hazards that were there before 1900 are still challenging the mining community -- methane gas, unstable rock strata, silica dust – and there are now hazards such as electricity and diesel machinery. The industry has vastly improved its safety record because we have improved our ability to cope with these hazards. Technology is part of that picture. So is education. So is constant vigilance in each mine, during every hour of every shift."

According to figures compiled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, workers in the mining industry experienced 23.6 deaths per 100,000 persons employed in 1998, a figure that includes the oil and gas extraction industry. (MSHA does not regulate oil and gas extraction. The rate for oil and gas extraction alone was 20.4 fatal injuries per 100,000 employed.) The major industrial grouping with the next highest rate of fatalities per 100,000 employed was agriculture, forestry and fishing, with a rate of 23.3. Specific occupations, industries or facilities may have higher or lower rates than the aggregate for the industrial grouping. The average for all U.S. occupations combined in 1998 was about 4.5 fatalities per 100,000 employed.

"In 1999, we saw a small increase in mining fatalities – a reminder that we need to keep pushing," McAteer said. U.S. mining deaths increased from a 20th-century low record of 80 in 1998 to 87 in 1999. Coal mining deaths rose from the 20th-century low of 29 in 1998 to 34 in 1999, while metal and nonmetal mining deaths increased from 51 in 1998 to 53 in 1999. The metal and nonmetal mining industry achieved its 20th-century low annual record of 40 deaths in 1994.

"The great majority of recent mine fatalities were preventable. In some cases, new technology can provide answers. For instance, we're asking mine operators to look at placing video cameras on huge surface haulage trucks. Video cameras can help prevent those accidents that occur because some mine trucks are so massive that the truck operator can't see a smaller vehicle nearby," McAteer said.

"While fatalities deserve our close attention, we also need to reduce injuries and illnesses in mining," McAteer said. "Lack of maintenance, inadequate training or poor safety management factor in many injuries to miners."

About 18,000 U.S. miners suffered nonfatal injuries reported to MSHA in 1998, the latest full year on record. Reportable injuries result in lost work days, medical treatment or both. The U.S. mining industry employed about 357,000 people in 1998 according to figures reported to MSHA by mine operators.

McAteer said that MSHA is engaged in a long-term, multi-year attack on black lung and silicosis. Caused by excessive dust in the mine air, these illnesses have disabled hundreds of thousands of miners and cut short many of their lives. Currently, about 40,000 former coal miners are disabled from this incurable illness. Since 1970, victims of black lung have received more than $36 billion in Federal compensation. MSHA has received reports of more than 300 newly diagnosed cases of black lung and silicosis annually in recent years.

"We are now conducting a confidential, voluntary chest x-ray program throughout the coal fields to help determine the current prevalence of black lung among working coal miners," McAteer said. "That will give us a baseline to determine how we are doing as we work to end black lung.

"We've already taken several key steps, including new drill dust standards to protect surface coal miners and new publications to inform mine operators about control techniques. We're now moving to take over the coal mine dust sampling program that has been in the hands of mine operators and change it so that we can identify problems more quickly and get them corrected," McAteer said.

"People sometimes ask if mining is still an important industry in the U.S.," McAteer said. "This country is producing and using more coal in the last few years than ever before. More than half of our electric power here in the U.S. comes from domestically mined coal. Yet producing that coal takes only about 122,000 miners. Each one of those miners is extremely productive – and important."

McAteer added, "In the metal and nonmetal sector, TEA-21 is fueling construction, repair and replacement of highways and bridges. The strong economy has also encouraged private construction. Stone, clay, sand and cement used in these projects all come from mining."

U.S. mines produce more than nine tons of aggregate per person in the U.S. population annually.

McAteer said that TEA-21 is one of several economic trends expected to pose safety and health challenges in the coming years. "Another significant trend in the mining industry is the increased employment of independent contractors. By 1998 independent contractors accounted for 20 percent of the mine workforce and almost 30 percent of the fatal accidents."

Globalization also demands attention, McAteer said. "The mining industry increasingly operates in a global market. Investment dollars, technology and mine products cross many borders.

We need to make sure that information and technology to protect miners from hazards accompanies them."

In 1999 MSHA provided technical information to and exchanged visits with several other countries. The agency also held the first International Mine Rescue Contest in conjunction with the National Mine Rescue and First Aid Contest.

The nation's worst mine accident of the 20th century occurred when more than 367 coal miners died in an explosion in Monongah, W.Va. in 1907. The worst accident in metal and nonmetal mining was a Butte, Mont., copper mine fire that claimed 163 lives in 1917. Monuments commemorate both disasters.

The single most influential 20th century law covering mine safety and health may have been the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, which established frequent Federal inspections at all coal mines, mandatory fines for violations and the first standards to prevent black lung. Prior Federal mine safety laws exempted certain mines, contained fewer enforcement tools and did little to protect miners' health. Congress extended the 1969 law's general provisions to the metal and nonmetal mining sector in 1977. The 1969 Act served, in part, as a model for the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act.

One of the most influential individuals promoting miner safety in the U.S. in the 20th century was Joseph A. Holmes (1859-1915). Born in Laurens, S.C., and a graduate of Cornell University, he served as the first director of the North Carolina Geologic Survey before convincing Congress to establish the U.S. Bureau of Mines in 1910. As the Bureau's first director, he founded the nation's first mine safety research program, the first national program to collect data on mine accidents and the first trained mine rescue teams.

"We entered the 20th century with mining as our most dangerous industry. We are leaving it with the safest and healthiest mining industry in the world. But we still have a long way to go," McAteer said.

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NOTE TO EDITORS: Statistics on U.S. mining fatalities and mine employment since 1900, and other historical information, can be accessed on MSHA's home page at www.msha.gov.