Sunday, December 03, 2006

Mine Fatalities: All Is Not What It Seems

This year has been a nightmare in America's coal mines with 46 miners killed, compared with 22 last year. Prior to this year, however, the mine industry has been boasting of falling fatality numbers: 28 in 2004, 30 in 2003 and 27 in 2002. Non-coal -- or metal/non-metal mines have shown similar decreases: 24 so far this year, 35 in 2005, 27 in 2004 and 26 in 2003.

But according to an article in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, things may not be as rosy as they seem:
In the past four years, 153 deaths have occurred at U.S. coal mines, but another 72 deaths were labeled "nonchargeable" incidents, 55 of them attributed to heart attacks or other "natural causes." As of late October, another eight cases were "pending determination," according to an internal MSHA daily fatality report.

During the same period in mines that don't produce coal -- metal/nonmetal mines -- 154 deaths were listed as "chargeable" and 100 classified "nonchargeable" because the workers died of natural causes.

The distinction is important because, unlike a death from a roof fall, there is no public follow-up investigative report that spells out the circumstances or recommends steps that might prevent deaths.
One worker's death was classified as non-chargable after he was pinned in a cab by a pipe after he ran over one end of it. His death was classified as a heart attack, which appalled former MSHA Special Assistant Celeste Monforton:
"That sure sounds like it's mining-related to me. I'd have a heart attack, too, if I were pinned in a cab," said Ms. Monforton, who is an environmental and occupational health specialist.
The number of "non-chargeable" deaths have been rising, which Monforton, who served in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, blames on the current administrations emphasis on reducing the numbers of fatalities:
In August 2001, Mr. Lauriski told a meeting of the Kentucky Mining Institute he had set an agency goal of reducing mining fatalities by 15 percent per year in the next four years, and cutting the nonfatal lost work days by 50 percent.

"This, of course, will require the commitment and help of all who work in the mining business," Mr. Lauriski told the mining industry crowd. "It can be achieved, and with your help, it will."

That year, 42 miners died, the highest yearly total since 1995, including 13 miners killed in an explosion at the Jim Walter Resources Mine No. 5 in Alabama one month after Mr. Lauriski's remarks.

MSHA documents show another 24 coal mine deaths were judged "nonchargeable" in 2001. All but four of those nonchargeable deaths were attributed to heart attacks, and one of the four was listed as "natural causes."

Since 2001, the number of chargeable coal mine deaths has held steady or gone down until this year, while nonchargeable deaths have increased from 14 in 2002 to 21 last year, nearly matching the number of charged deaths. Fifteen were attributed to "natural causes."
The problem is that no lessons are learned from deaths that are not counted as work-related. Too much focus on the numbers can ultimately work against prevention of future accidents. As Monforton explains,
"Certainly, people in the industry and in the agency want to see those [fatality] numbers go down, so there is an inherent desire not to count things," she said. "But because we're driven by some arbitrary number count, we're losing a whole subset of information that can be very helpful in terms of prevention."
University of Washington Professor of Occupational and Environmental Health Dr. Michael Silverstein explains why agencies have an incentive to undercount:
Dr. Silverstein sees an inherent conflict when enforcement agencies such as MSHA and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration decide which deaths count as work-related. "There are incentives with these government agencies to find ways to claim success, and that is to reduce work fatalities. Every administration does this."
And besides that, ask Silverstein, why shouldn't heart attacks be counted?
"If someone is working under conditions of extreme pressure and stress that has resulted in a heart attack, other workers are going to be faced with the same risks unless that information is recorded and dealt with,"
And who makes the determination about work-relatedness? It's all done inside MSHA, which is potentially problematic:
None of these proceedings is open to the public, nor is there any public report if the committee decides the death is not related to the mining operation.

"There should be some hard, fast rules about what a 'chargeable' death is. It shouldn't be left to some secret society," said Ms. Monforton.