Coal-mining deaths in Kentucky were down in 2013 from the year before, but the state led the nation in the number of deaths at other kinds of mining operations, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Nationwide, there were 20 deaths at coal mines and 22 at metal/nonmetal mines, such as limestone quarries and sand-mining operations, MSHA said.
There were two coal-related deaths in Kentucky, one at a Leslie County surface mine and the other at an underground mine in Harlan County, and four deaths at metal/nonmetal mines, according to a preliminary count MSHA released Monday.
The two coal deaths matched the state's record-low total from 2007, MSHA figures show.
It is unusual to have more non-coal mining deaths in Kentucky than coal fatalities. From 2002 through 2013, MSHA recorded 87 deaths in Kentucky related to coal mining, but only 13 at metal/nonmetal facilities.
Coal production, and the number of people employed in the industry, dropped significantly in Eastern Kentucky in 2013. That could have played a role in the lower number of fatalities.
MSHA also has stepped up enforcement, and has credited many in the coal industry with attention to safety, though it continues to find serious violations at some coal mines in Kentucky and elsewhere during special inspections.
Nationwide, the 20 coal-related deaths in 2013 matched the total from 2012, but the number of deaths at metal/nonmetal mines rose from 16 in 2012 to 22 in 2013, according to the MSHA news release.
"Mining deaths are preventable, and those that occurred in 2013 are no exception," MSHA chief Joseph A. Main said in the news release. "While we have made a number of improvements and have been moving mine safety in the right direction, the increased number of metal/nonmetal deaths makes clear we need to do more to protect our nation's miners."
Mining fatalities were on track toward a record low before a jump in the last three months of the year, when six coal miners and nine metal/nonmetal miners died, according to MSHA.
MSHA cut back on some inspections early in the fourth quarter because of the federal government shutdown.
No one has linked the spike in fatalities directly to the shutdown, but the inability of Congress to pass a budget bill "has resulted in cutbacks of routine inspections that are essential to the complex system of safety oversight of this complex industry," U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, D-West Virginia, said in October, according to the Mine Safety and Health News newsletter.
West Virginia had the most coal-related deaths in the nation last year, with six.
Bill Estep: (606) 678-4655. Twitter: @billestep1