Kentucky had two coal-mining deaths in 2014, equaling the lowest total ever in the state as work-related fatalities at coal mines across the nation also fell to a record low, according to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Kentucky also had two coal deaths in 2007 and 2013, federal records show.
MSHA on Monday released its preliminary count of fatalities at coal mines and noncoal mines and related facilities.
Kentucky had only one coal-mining death last year until Dec. 16, when Eli Eldridge, 34, died in an accident at Patriot Coal Co.'s Highland No. 9 underground mine in Union County.
Eldridge was an experienced miner from Eastern Kentucky.
He had moved to take a job at the other end of the state because of the sharp downturn in coal production in Eastern Kentucky, according to MSHA reports and Tim Miller, an official with the United Mine Workers of America, which represents workers at the Union County mine.
Eldridge had been at the Highland mine for three months when he was struck and killed by a ram car — a low-profile, motorized vehicle used to haul coal — two weeks before Patriot idled the mine, according to an MSHA report and Miller.
"It's awful," Miller said.
Kentucky's other coal death last year occurred at the Commonwealth Mining LLC Tinsley Branch HWM 61 mine, a surface operation in Bell County, where Justin Mize, 31, was hit by a large rock, according to MSHA.
The agency has not released final reports on the causes of the two accidents.
The two coal fatalities in Kentucky were among 16 nationwide. That total, down from 20 in 2013, was the lowest ever recorded, MSHA said in a news release.
The previous low was 18 in 2009, when Kentucky accounted for six of the fatalities, according to MSHA data.
In addition to the 16 coal-related deaths, 24 people died at other types of mines and facilities, two more than in 2013.
One of those deaths happened in Kentucky on Feb. 21 at the Cemex Inc. Kosmos Cement Co. plant in Louisville, MSHA said.
The agency said a worn part allowed the door to an elevator to open when the car was not there. A worker, Felipe Mata-Vizcaya, 37, died after falling 51 feet down the open elevator shaft, MSHA's report said.
Ten of the coal-mining deaths happened at underground mines and the other six at surface facilities. At noncoal mines, six of the deaths happened underground and 18 at the surface, MSHA said.
The drop in coal fatalities came as the number of mines and miners also dropped, particularly in Central Appalachia.
However, MSHA said the number of deaths in 2014 was about half as many as in the early 2000s, when the number of coal miners was comparable to now.
Agency chief Joseph A. Main attributed the reduction in fatalities to tougher oversight and special initiatives by MSHA, combined with industry safety efforts.
But Main said that while mine safety was moving in the right direction, more efforts were needed.
"Mining deaths are preventable, and those that occurred in 2014 are no exception," Main said. "Advancements in health and safety demand the cooperation of the entire mining community. Miners deserve the reassurance that they will return home safe and healthy after every shift."
The figures MSHA released Monday are preliminary and sometimes change after further review.