Eight coal miners have been killed in Kentucky so far this year, and half of those deaths have been in the past month.
Three of the recent Kentucky deaths have been at surface mines. Historically underground mines have been thought to be more dangerous—working under a mountain carries inherent risks—but the data shows that a surface miner is statistically more likely to die than an underground miner.
The number of miners killed in Kentucky mines since the year 2000 is pretty similar for both underground and surface mines: 52 miners killed underground and 39 on surface mines. But each year, about twice as many miners are employed underground.
Tony Oppegard is a Lexington-based mine safety attorney. He says many of the recent surface mine accidents—like rock falls and heavy equipment malfunctions—are definitely preventable with a good safety program.
“You have this rush for production and you think if we slow down and do the things we’re supposed to do, we’re not going to produce as much coal,” he said. “It’s a fallacy to start with, but it can be a deadly fallacy.”
Due to state legislation, surface mines are now required to do pre-shift safety checks, which they aren’t required to under federal law.
“A safe mine almost always is a productive mine,” Oppegard said. “That’s what the data indicates, whether it’s underground or a strip mine. It doesn’t help you to cut corners on safety so you can get an extra ton of coal here and there.”
Of the four miners killed in the past month, two died in a rock fall on a surface mine, and two were in machinery accidents—one on a surface mine and one underground.