Saturday, December 31, 2005

Year-End Musings

Barring any tragic developments in the next few hours, we can expect to see an MSHA news release sometime next week announcing the apparent new historic record low in coal mine fatalities.

Considering the industry's past, it is indeed notable that the U.S. coal industry these days routinely is able to hold annual employee deaths down to fewer than 50 -- has done this since 1993 -- and has continued to set new records.

That news, however, will provide not one shred of comfort to the family of David Morris, Jr., 29, fatally struck by a shuttle car yesterday in the H & D Mining, Inc., Mine No 3 in Harlan County, Ky. Or to the other families who have lost loved ones in coal, metal and nonmetallic mineral mine accidents this year -- at least 56 of them.

Nor will this news offer the slightest reprieve to those in the industry who worked so hard and, on the whole, successfully last year to keep themselves, their co-workers and employees safe on the job every day.

In looking more closely at the accidents on record, moreover, some troubling suggestions lurk. For instance:

--Fatalities in non-coal mines turned sharply upward in 2005, from 27 last year to 35 this year so far. Last year also was up slightly, by 1, over the sector's low record of 26 in 2003. In other words, deaths in the metal and nonmetal sector are up by almost 35 percent in 2 years.

--Deaths due to roof and rib control problems in coal mines doubled, accounting for 8 deaths this year so far compared with 4 last year. Once again, after some years' hiatus, these types of accidents were the most common cause of coal mine deaths.

--The year saw two double-fatality accidents in coal mines after a year free of such incidents in 2004.

--Some mines and companies show troubling records. The H & D Mine No. 3, for instance, has been in existence for only two years, yet had accumulated hundreds of violations and thousands of dollars in penalties, yet had apparently never paid a single one of those penalties, many of which were delinquent at the time of the fatality -- all according to MSHA's online data retrieval system. Also in the news this week, Rosebud Mining in Pennsylvania had two miners killed in separate roof falls, and now several mining industry employees have lost their licenses and an official at the Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety itself is being probed over roof control plans it approved for the company. Are federal and state agencies watchdogging these operations as they should?

The dangers of mining are still very real, and will continue to take lives if vigilance relaxes in any quarter.


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