MSHA: Deaths among coal miners reach ‘historic low’ in 2020

First published by Safety+Health an NSC publication.

Arlington, VA — Twenty-nine miners died on the job in 2020, marking the sixth straight year the annual total has remained below 30, the Mine Safety and Health Administration announced Jan. 13.

Although last year’s fatality total represents a 7.4% increase from the 2019 total of 27, MSHA reports that coal miners represented five of the 2020 deaths – “a historic low.”

Additionally, no seat belt-related deaths were recorded for the first time in MSHA’s 44-year history. The agency also reported all-time-low average concentrations of respirable dust and respirable quartz in underground coal mines, as well as dust and quartz exposure for miners at the highest risk of overexposure to respirable dust.

MSHA credits a diverse educational campaign as a contributing factor for a significant decrease in miner deaths related to powered haulage. Such fatalities represented 21% of the overall total in 2020 after accounting for about half of all fatalities in 2017 and 2018.

In 2020, MSHA “focused on improving safety in several areas, including falls from height and truck-loading operations,” administrator David Zatezalo said in a press release. “We also focused on chronic problem areas such as disproportionate accidents among contractors and inexperienced miners. In 2019, contractor deaths accounted for 41% of deaths at mines. In 2020, they were 28%.”

According to MSHA, about 230,000 miners work in approximately 11,500 metal/nonmetal mines nationwide, while around 64,000 work in about 1,000 U.S. coal mines.


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No changes to training requirements for refuge alternatives in coal mines, MSHA says

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Photo: JodiJacobson/iStockphoto

Washington — The Mine Safety and Health Administration has determined that the annual training requirements outlined in its Refuge Alternatives for Underground Coal Mines rule supply “an experience sufficient to enable miners to apply their knowledge, other training and available written instruction to effectively use the refuge alternative in an emergency.”

After multiple reopenings of the record and extensions of the comment period, MSHA announced in a notice published in the July 10 Federal Register that the rule – finalized in December 2008 and effective in March 2009 – “remains in effect without change.”

In 2009, United Mine Workers of America challenged the rule in a lawsuit filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, citing NIOSH research in support of its push for quarterly training to better protect miners.

The court remanded the rule but didn’t vacate it, directing the agency to “explain the basis for the training frequency provision from the existing record or to reopen the record and allow additional public comment if needed.”

After reopening the record, MSHA received three public comments, including two in support of retaining the existing rule. The agency states in the notice that the rule’s approach is consistent with mandates in West Virginia, the lone state that specifies training for refuge alternative deployment requirements. It added, “MSHA concludes that annual motor-task (hands-on), decision-making and expectations training, supplemented by existing mandated quarterly review of deployment and use procedures, as well as existing mandated quarterly evacuation training and quarterly evacuation drills with review of a mine’s evacuation plan, which include discussion of emergency scenarios and options for escape and refuge, will prepare miners to deploy and use refuge alternatives appropriately and effectively in an emergency.”


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Engulfment incident spurs MSHA safety alert on surge piles

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Photo: Photo: Mine Safety and Health Administration

Arlington, VA — Prompted by a recent incident in which a coal mine bulldozer operator working on a surge pile of coal was engulfed and trapped in the machine’s cab when the pile collapsed, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has issued a safety alert.

The operator was working near a load-out feeder location at the time the surge pile tumbled. MSHA contends the operator was uninjured because the bulldozer was equipped with high-strength glass that prevented coal from infiltrating the cab, as well as two self-contained self-rescuers, which supplied sufficient, breathable air during a two-hour rescue effort.

According to a 2019 Department of Labor video, surge pile incidents have claimed the lives of 19 miners since 1980. “In an accident, a bulldozer can suddenly fall into a hidden cavity, where the coal has bridged over an underground feeder,” the video says.

MSHA offers numerous best practices for mine operators and contractors to safely work on or near surge piles, including:

  • Prevent foot traffic on surge piles and provide adequate warning signs.
  • Provide adequate surge pile-related training to all workers, including specialization on alarm response, equipment needs, and rescue and recovery plans involving engulfed equipment.
  • Stock cabs with safety equipment, including self-contained self-rescuers, flashlights, cooling pads and drinking water.
  • Stay stable. Do not operate equipment directly over feeders, stay away from unstable drawhole edges and ensure bulldozers employ the “double blade” pushing method.
  • Use remote-controlled dozers on surge piles.
  • Be aware of surge pile conditions.