I’m Proud to Be a Coal Miner’s Grandson

To hear Senators Byrd and Rockefeller speak, one would think that the coal mining industry in this country is one of the major sources of death in the <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />US. They might be surprised to hear that, while 28 miners died in accidents on the job in 2004, so did 27 top executives. The recent small cluster of mining deaths in two incidents has led to a legislative reaction out of all proportion to the scale of the problem. Mining is already about as safe as such an inherently dangerous activity can be.<?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />

I care about this because coal mining is in my blood, my heritage. My grandfather was the last in a line of coal miners in the North-East of England. The “colliers” as they were called toiled for years in conditions of abject misery. “Howkahs” like my grandfather would squat in shafts barely 3’ tall hacking (“howking”) coal out of the coalface with a pick-axe. Mechanization gradually made the conditions more congenial, but mining always remained a hazardous activity. As an industry in the UK, it was destroyed by the hubris of the National Union of Mineworkers, who brought down one government in 1974 but failed a decade later when they took on Margaret Thatcher. During that attempted coup, I always found it offensive that the miners’ leaders claimed they were striving to secure jobs for future generations. The terrible conditions of the “pit” led my grandfather to ensure that my father trained to become an electrician instead.

It should therefore be a cause for celebration that mine safety has increased to the point where work accidents kill about the same number of miners as they do top executives. The current fatality rate for miners is about 2.5 per 10,000 employees, less than half what it was 20 years ago, and one sixth of what it was forty years ago. Mine fatalities have now reached the level where one incident of multiple fatalities can have a significant effect on the fatality rate. This is a good thing as it illustrates how rare those incidents are now.

The figures are also interesting in that they suggest that federal legislation did not have much effect on the fatality rate. In 1952, the Coal Mine Safety Act was passed, but the fatality rate actually increased for several years. The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 may well have had an effect, as the fatality rate decreased sharply after 1970, but the much vaunted Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 seemed to have little effect, as the fatality rate remained about the same for a decade after its passage. Any objective look at the data has to admit that the trend in fatalities has been downwards since 1900.

Nevertheless, the fatality rate has remained about the same since 1983, at around 3 deaths per 10,000 employees, which translates at current employment levels to around 30 deaths per year. It is hard to see, given mining’s inherent dangers and the general prevalence of accidents that kill even top executives, how this figure can be reduced significantly in the future.

Mine Fatality Rate

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Of course, every fatal accident is a tragedy, and accidents that are preventable should be prevented. Yet, just as military strategists are always fighting the last war, so safety legislation too often attempts to prevent the last accident. If new regulations cause money to be spent on preventing a recurrence of the last accident rather than the occurrence of the next one, that will do miners a disservice. There is a delicate balance here that experts in the mine industry are better placed to divine than elderly legislators.

It should also be pointed out that, as Tom Blumer notes at BizzyBlog, the Bush administration has come under fire from the New York Times for appointing people who actually know about the industry to important positions regarding mine safety. Such appointments have not led to an increase in mining accidents, as the Times insinuates, but to a continuance of an excellent safety record in historical terms.

Ultimately, the latest deaths occurred because of an explosion, and we need only look to the words of the Pitman’s Poet, Thomas Armstrong, to see how ever present those are in mines. In 1882, Armstrong wrote a moving ballad about the Trimdon Grange Disaster:

God protect the lonely widow,Help to raise each drooping head;Be a father to the orphans,Never let them cry for bread.Death will pay us all a visit,They have only gone before;We may meet the Trimdon victimsWhere explosions are no more.

Amen. If the Senators can prevent mine explosions, they will be remembered. Sadly, the laws of physics cannot be amended by legislation.