2015 mining deaths in U.S. the lowest on record

A coal train near Typo Tunnel Lane in Typo on Dec. 11, 2006.
A coal train near Typo Tunnel Lane in Typo on Dec. 11, 2006.

The number of mining deaths in the nation in 2015 was the lowest on record, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration announced this week.

The agency said 28 people died in work-related accidents at mines. That was down from 45 in 2014.

Of those 28 deaths, 11 were at coal mines — the lowest total ever — and 17 were at other types of mines or quarries, MSHA said in a news release.

Kentucky had two coal-mine deaths in 2015, matching record low totals from 2007, 2013 and 2014.

There were no deaths at other types of mines in the state.

MSHA chief Joe Main said a drop in the number of coal mines played a role in the record-low number of mining deaths.

Coal companies have shuttered hundreds of mines in Eastern Kentucky and other areas of Central Appalachia because of competition from relatively cheap natural gas, tougher federal rules to protect air quality and other factors.

The number of miners working in Eastern Kentucky has dropped by more than half since early 2012.

But Main said enforcement and training by MSHA and actions by the mining industry to improve safety also have been key factors in reducing deaths.

Among other things, MSHA began a program of special “impact” inspections in 2010 to try to prod improved safety at mines with problems such as a record of compliance violations. The agency also stepped up enforcement and outreach to non-coal mines after deaths at three different mines in one day last August, according to the news release.

There were no more fatalities at non-coal mines in the next 134 days, passing the prior record of 82 days without a death in that sector, according to MSHA.

“While record-low numbers have been achieved, we are mindful that things could change in a heartbeat if we let down our guard,” Main said. “There is still much more to be done to ensure that miners go home after every shift, safe and healthy.”

The first coal mine death in Kentucky last year happened in May, when 45-year-old Roy Mullins was crushed as he attempted to hook a road grader to a tractor-trailer to tow it at an Apex Energy surface mine in Pike County. The brakes on the grader failed and it rolled back, pinning Mullins between the machines.

The other coal death happened in September at an underground mine in Webster County controlled by Alliance Resource Partners LP. Electrician Rickey Thorpe, 29, was killed when a heavy piece of equipment he was repairing fell and crushed him, according to MSHA.

The fatality figures released this week are considered preliminary.