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US coal sector on track to finish 2018 with fewer fatalities after 2017 spike

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US coal sector on track to finish 2018 with fewer fatalities after 2017 spike

As 2018 comes to a close, the U.S. coal sector is on track to return to a trend of declining fatal accidents.

The industry opened the decade with 48 fatalities in 2010, followed by 20 in each of the next three years. The annual fatality count then steadily declined before hitting an all-time low of just eight in 2016. However, fatalities nearly doubled in 2017, with 15 coal miners dying on the job, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data. Ten fatalities have been attributed to the sector in 2018, including the most recent which stemmed from an industrial accident in Pennsylvania reported on Dec. 20.

"Ensuring the safety and health of every miner is a core value of the mining industry," said Conor Bernstein, senior director of communications for the National Mining Association. "The goal is zero fatalities and injuries. To achieve that shared goal, the industry goes beyond what is required by regulations. Beyond complying with legal requirements, which is the responsibility of every miner, the U.S. mining industry has taken voluntary steps to accelerate the pace of mine safety improvement by implementing best practices that encourage a culture of safety."

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Bernstein points to the NMA's voluntary CORESafety program, whose participating companies reported zero fatalities in 2017 for the first time since aiming for that goal six years prior.

While improved safety programs, better technology and different approaches to regulation and enforcement are all possible explanations for a general drop in fatalities, the number of coal miners has also fallen significantly as domestic demand has dropped in recent years.

MSHA fatality reports show coal mining fatalities in 2018 were caused by incidents associated with a fall of face, rib, side or highwall; electrical equipment; powered haulage; fire and machinery. Five of the 10 deaths were classified as incidents involving powered haulage, a term that describes equipment that moves materials or personnel around a mine.

"Far too many miners have been injured or killed in accidents involving powered haulage," MSHA wrote on a webpage about its Powered Haulage Safety Initiative. "MSHA has made the prevention of powered haulage accidents a priority for 2018 and beyond, with an initial focus on three areas: large vehicles striking smaller ones; seat belt usage; and conveyor belt safety."

An MSHA spokesperson said the agency continues "to pursue initiatives designed to address common hazards and improve safety at all mines." In addition to the powered haulage initiative, MSHA has published a request for information on technologies and practices that can improve mobile equipment and belt conveyor safety, and implemented a Fire Suppression System Initiative "to update inspectors, swiftly inspect all 4,288 pieces of high-hazard mobile equipment that use such systems, and educate operators and miners on related hazards."

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"Every one of these deaths was preventable," Assistant Secretary of Labor David Zatezalo said during a February review of mining fatalities at a West Virginia coal mining conference. "We have to learn from them. ... "I for one am tired of reading about these fatalities year after year."

Zatezalo also said in remarks to industry this year that technology is key to getting mining fatalities to zero. The agency, he said, is looking at potential solutions including proximity detection for surface mines, seat belt detection devices and safety systems for conveyor belts. He also has targeted "scofflaw" operators who are delinquent on fines for safety violations.