Deadly & False Opinions

I saw the news today about the deaths of three rescuers in the Utah coal mine, and after the initial burst of sorrow for them and their families I thought about the incredible sense of commitment miners must have to each other – much like soldiers, firefighters and LEO’s. It’s something that’s there within our society, but is too often buried – our commitment to protect and rescue each other. I’d read about the instability in the mine – either seismic or due to roof failure, I certainly don’t know – and I’d thought about the risks those teams of workers were taking for their colleagues who they may not have even known personally. I wish I’d been wrong about the risks they were taking…

My next thought was to wonder when the first article or blog post blaming this on Bush would come out…and I wish I’d been wrong about that as well…At 10:50 this morning, let me bring you the Liberal Avenger:

Let’s keep in mind that this accident was completely preventable, but efforts to regulate mine safety in the wake of several mine tragedies in 2006 were derailed by corruption and an anti-regulatory mindset within the Republican party. President Bush signaled his unwillingness to regulate the coal mining industry when he appointed Richard Stickler as the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety…

So in the wake of series of fatal mining disasters, the Bush administration decided to circumvent the nomination process in order to put a former mining executive in charge of enforcing mining regulations. Is anyone surprised by the result?

Well, I sure as heck was when I did a little research back in 2006.

So in the news recently are the mining tragedies that have killed 21 miners so far this year. And a lot of coverage has focused on the lower fines, and perceived lax enforcement by an industry-friendly Administration.

So I started a post on the importance of re-regulating the industry, and toughening regulation to save miner’s lives.

And I went to the Mine Safety & Health Administration to trend out the pattern of deaths.

And got the data that made up this somewhat surprising graph:

I updated the graph to include 2006 data and annualized the 2007 data as of 8/13/07:


Notice anything?

Look, I may not like the industry cozyness of Bush’s appointments in this area. And maybe there are exogenous factors that are driving the decline in deaths.

But the deaths are declining. And to ignore that is just plain bullshit. Just as it’s bullshit to cite rising troop suicide rates without noting that they remain below those of the civilian population.

Does that mean we shouldn’t look hard at mine and industrial safety? Absolutely not. Of course we need to keep looking at it. Just as we need to look at the psychic welfare of the troops.

But it’s bullshit, pure and simple, to make arguments like this. First, because they are so easy to pick apart – and if you care about worker safety or about troop well-being, you have an obligation to make good arguments in favor of those things.

There was just news about a newsroom in Seattle that erupted in applause when Rove resigned; the editor wrote a perfect memo explaining why that was wrong:

If we wore our politics on our sleeves in here, I have no doubt that in this and in most other mainstream newsrooms in America, the majority of those sleeves would be of the same color: blue. Survey after survey over the years have demonstrated that most of the people who go into this business tend to vote Democratic, at least in national elections. That is not particularly surprising, given how people make career decisions and that social service and activism is a primary driver for many journalists.

But if we allowed our news meetings to evolve into a liberal latte klatch, I have no doubt that a pathological case of group-think would soon set in. One of the advances of which I’m most proud over the years is our willingness to question and challenge each other as we work to give our readers the most valuable, meaningful journalism we can.

The result: A newspaper that is known nationally for aggressive watchdog and investigative reporting, without fear or favor. From a Democratic United States senator (Brock Adams) to our region’s biggest employer (Boeing) to a large advertiser (Nordstrom) to our school districts and courts and police, we have confronted them all with tough questions to which they had no good answers. The result has been a better community, laws changed, lives saved.

It’s not about “balance,” which is a false construct. It isn’t even about “objectivity,” which is a laudable but probably unattainable goal. It is about independent thinking and sound, facts-based journalism — the difference between what we do and the myopic screed that is passed off as “advocacy” journalism these days.

“It is about independent thinking and sound, facts-based journalism…” Wow. Can I just applaud that line?

And can I ask my fellow pundits to opine away – in fact encourage them to – in favor of worker rights, worker safety, and the well-being of the members of our military? But to do so in a way that’s rooted in provable fact?

46 thoughts on “Deadly & False Opinions”

  1. I disagree with this, “Just as it’s bullshit to cite rising troop suicide rates without noting that they remain below those of the civilian population.” for reasons stated in the comments section of that post.

    I would further issue a warning that while there does apear to be a decline in mining deaths during the Bush administration – based on your graph – no analysis of statistical significance can be performed until we know the denominator (e.g. the number of miners working underground and the number of operational mines; especially in the higher risk locals). Maybe there are simply fewer miners working in fewer mines and, hence, less opportunity for deaths.

    The statistic – this would be chi-squared/time series analysis – would be based upon the proportion of miners killed out of the total working.

    Again, we would have to normalize by doing a comparison by each mine across time. Think, perhaps the more unsafe operations may have been closed down towards the end of the Clinton administration. I don’t know, but this possibility should not be ignored either.

    Hasn’t there been a number of mine closures (don’t know for sure because I don’t really pay attention to these things).

  2. I agree on the x/100k comment, but the numbers still hold true.

    The closest I could get was “this”: from the MSHA – whose website I want to light on fire. From there, I got ~355k in 1996, ~363k in 2006 for coal, metal and non metal. It looks like # of mines have picked up as well. Though I believe these numbers include underground and surface mining, and underground mining is about twice as deadly as surface mining. No breakout on what exactly increased, or, true, if some of the more dangers mines got closed out.

    What does trouble me from my link is a few things: the number of inspection hours per mine dropped by 20%, the number of citations+orders went up by 40% – and the Big Red Graph. After 50 years of a decreasing(slowly) curve, it’s leveled out, with an uptick from Sago last year. Yes, it is not normalized – but the last 10 years are mostly flat total employment wise.

    It’s quite easy to opine about worker safety if they want to – harp on increasing the number of inspection hours per mine, make mines face a true penalty for citations – and bring up increasing safety regulations. The Liberal Avenger (hah!) can do that on three fronts – he just chose “mine owner gave to Republicans” and “Republicans killed a mine safety bill last year”. Each of these three things are rooted in fact, and could (loosely) increase worker safety if changed. I’m not saying it would, but I’m sure enough people can.

    And if the mine owner
    “has projected his own”: “hard power” by bringing up the names of people who he’s connected with, I’d be hard pressed to believe other people he’s dealt aren’t aware of that.

  3. bq. But if we allowed our news meetings to evolve into a liberal latte klatch, I have no doubt that a pathological case of group-think would soon set in.

    I think this gentleman is in full-fledged denial. That pathological group-think has already set in; if it hadn’t he would not have reason to write his otherwise-excellent memo.

  4. Dave,

    That is a great link. It answers our questions. It provides rates (which take the denominator into account).

    If you look at coal mining specific stats – the second table down – you can clearly see that 2006 was far deadlier than 1996 (or deadlier during Bush than during Clinton).

    Also, you can see that the number of coal miners has been declining. As noted by Dave, coal mining is by far the more dangerous form. So we would expect a decline in raw volume of deaths as the number of coal miners declines. In 2006 there was an increase in the raw number of coal miners and – no surprise – an increase in raw number of deaths.

    At any rate, AL, I’m sorry to say that your performance as a story by numbers guy is typical of the very media you criticize.

  5. Howdy All,
    I must say that I respect all those who work in the dangerous business of supplying us with energy. Furthermore I have even more respect for the folks that were striving to save their co-workers, and were injured or killed.
    However this coal mining business begs a question. That is my question. For nothing’s sake we put man on the moon, several times in fact. Yet we are still generating energy from a source that was first used for the purpose a thousand plus years ago. Is it not the year 2007? Why are we still using coal? Why not atomic energy?
    Atomic energy is still by far the safest way to generate electricity that man has yet devised. Seriously look at the number of people that use energy that is generated by the splitting of the atom, and then look at environmental impact of its creation. Next you need to compare it to coal.
    Even if you deign to include the recent discharge in Japan, due to an earthquake, the Three Mile Island Incident, and Chernobyl disaster; I would posit that the cumulative “damage” was less then than that which has been produced in the entire coal burning era.
    Now I am no fool, I understand that uranium like coal must be retrieved from the earth’s crust. There are two ways to do this. One is the safer though esthetically displeasing method of strip mining. The other is the far more dangerous process of sending men and machines into the bones of the earth. The latter is far more common historically than the former; although I will reserve my personal judgments on these two basic forms of ore extraction for another discussion. I will however state that there will be a need for fewer miners if we convert over to a power generating system based on Uranium. After all it generates much more energy we used in power generation.
    I guess what it boils down to is that we human beings are demanding more and more energy; six billion beings take a lot of energy. We have to get it one way or another. Solar, and wind generated power are still too inefficient in their own ways for large scale energy production.
    That leaves us if we abandon all else, (Notice I make not mention of petroleum products?), hydroelectric power generation. Than again hydroelectric is perhaps the cleanest of all forms of energy generation, and arguably as esthetically unappealing as strip mining; what with damns and reservoirs. Not to mention their damaging impact on the environment.
    I guess what I am trying to say is that we humans dwelling in the year 2007 at the beginning of the Age of Information need power, and we have to get it one way or another. Why not work with power sources that are demonstrably efficient and safe? We might still have mining disasters, but there will in fact be fewer miners and fewer mines if we start intelligently using Uranium instead of coal.
    The bottom line is that I like my lights on. How about you?


  6. 1) Someone’s always going to create unsubstantiated blame on the politician du jour. Republicans did it during Clinton, Dems do it during Bush. Sad but true. Unfortunately, it’s the way of the world. I would like to believe that the ‘new wave’ of democratic activism would learn to rise over this someday, but it’s not going to happen.

    2) While the newsroom in Seattle likely is largely D’s, I could make the argument that independents (and perhaps even Republicans) cheered the end of Rove. He is the worst politics has to offer… Holding dedication to the party over decency. His greatest hits include: the McCain ‘Black Baby’ scandal. Starting a whisper campaign that a non-profit for abused children actually supported the candidates pedophilia. In another election, he viciously attacked his own candidate in unmarked flyers distributed throughout the city to garner sympathy votes. In another election where he worked for a candidate notoriously bad at debating, he claimed that his office was ‘bugged’ the morning of the debate to kill local interest.

    Seriously, my happiness with his leave is only diminshed by the fact that he hasn’t been banned from politics (yet). When he dies, I’ll be mixing drinks at my place.

  7. Check that, holding dedication to winning over any loyalty, decency or morality.

    Many of the candidates he slimed were republicans.

  8. avedis, yeah but the rate (per miner) of fatal and nonfatal accidents in coal and metal mining has been declining in those numbers as well…

    From .0402 in 2001 (higher than 1996 at .034) in a continuous series to .0196 in 2005, then spiking (the big accident last year).

    So how does this support your argument?


  9. Here is my way of insuring theat the highest saftey standards are adhered to by the owners.
    After a fatal accident the mine belongs to the estates of the deceased.

  10. So how does this support your argument?

    What exactly is the argument, anyway? That Democratic presidents magically prevent mine disasters, the same way they protect us from hurricanes and solar flares?

    It seems to me that mine safety has improved since it was taken out from under the authority of a single federal agency in the 90s. Similar to the way that the safety of nuclear power plants vastly improved after they were unshackled from the AEC, allowing them to catch up with private industry.

    Speaking of nuclear energy, note that no retreat mining is required.

  11. #7 from alchemist at 3:50 pm on Aug 18, 2007 =

    bq. When he dies, I’ll be mixing drinks at my place.

    re: Rove

    Glad to see you are trying to bring this forum down to the level of the Kos-tards or the Huffinggluetoast. Bring us all down to your level? Sad. I dub you aldementor.

    On topic – blaming the disaster in Utah to Bush’s appointments is just demented, also. The practices at the mine were the sole responsibility of the mine owners. ‘nuf said.

  12. robohobo: I probably won’t mix drinks, I’m usually too busy to organize these things. But seriously, he is an awful, awful person. I dislike him, I dislike his democratic equivalents, and I dislike the current mantra of politics that deems no cost to high in the name of winning.

    I think that’s rather anti-kos like, no?

  13. al-

    yeah, but you will not catch me saying that I will celebrate the day they die in relation to the Shrillary, Obama the Bomba or the rest of the clueless idiots in the DNC or the Lefty blogosphere. I would much rather they be around to receive my derision. Just like the crap emanating from the Huffinggluetoast about Tony Snow. Go read that crap. Those folks are sick. That is my point. Saying you will dance the day they die is just WRONG. Unless you wish us to do the same for YOU? Or mix drinks and toast or whatever.

    Call me names – okay – I can do the same back – it really does not bother me. Wish for my death – well…..

    But it does appear you got the point – so, you are no longer aldementor, you are once again alchemist.

    The Hobo

  14. AL….huh? the coal mining fatal injury rate was .034 in 1996 and 0.04 in 2006. And we don’t know what it was in 1995 or 1997 (curious that that data has been left out.)

    My agrument was merely that using raw numbers (volumes) is methodologically unsound and irresponsible. Always use rates.

    I don’t know what the trend means. I would have to see the annual fatality rate fof each year for the the past 20 or 30 years before I felt comfortable coming to any conclusions. I would have to know more about the nature of inspection hours and other stats shown on that page.

    I was just jabbing at you with the comment about the Bush years being more deadly than the Clinton years to reinforce the obviousness of your false presentation of data. From what you show it appears that deaths declined greatly and dramatically during Bush years. I said that it meant nothing without a denominator. Along came Dave and his link and, voila, it turns out that the denominator is a big factor in assessing relative mine deaths from 1996 to 2006.

    I am making an issue of this because it is you yourself that is frequently critical of the media for what you describe as unsound practices.

  15. avedis –

    I absolute and unqualifiedly agree that there’s room to improve the numbers – and accept the jab – but at least we’re looking at numbers.

    Note that 2006 was an outlier and we had a historic event (23 deaths, as I recall) in one incident…but yeah, we could definitely make better numbers out of this. I’ll poke around a little more if time permits…any help appreciated.


  16. Robohobo,

    I wouldn’t wish for your death. I may disagree with you, but you have decided to debate that disagreement with me. I respect that. I may not be a big fan of Hillary, Obama, Guilliani or Romney, but they haven’t seemed to cross any moral boundry that’s beyond the realm of everyday politics (Huffington post I haven’t read, so I’m unsure).

    My point is that Rove is an especially gifted schmuck. When you start assaulting charitable donations as ‘pedophilia’ you’ve crossed a line. Once you’ve gone there, there’s no going back. And Rove has gone there, again, and again and again.

    So yes, I’ll be happy when he’s gone. However his bag of tricks is already out there, and others will pick it up soon (Republicans & Democrats alike). And nobody’s going to clean up his mess.

  17. #10 said: After a fatal accident the mine belongs to the estates of the deceased.
    Then you’d really see mine accidents as it’s a huge money maker. One lifetime is not enough time to convince me that 90% of the population does not goes south in their thinking when they start amassing wealth.

    #12 said: The practices at the mine were the sole responsibility of the mine owners. Accountability is important yes however, (and my way of thinking is different), people need to be held accountable for their own actions first. No one told these men to get jobs in the mining industry, they made that choice themselves.

    Having said all that, the aura of sadness and heavy weighted atmosphere of that sadness has been wafting through the air in Utah since the start of this event.
    Usually I am able to remain detached from what is happening in our world, not this time, it has given me a sad heart for now.

    What’s the solution, I’ve not a clue. Those that are close to the industry do and they’re the one’s that need to implement necessary changes.

  18. The problems at this particular non-union mine had been noted for some time. Many miners felt the place was too unstable to continue mining.

    A union MIGHT have caused a shut-down pending inspections and a safety report. That’s one of the reasons people join a union, to get collectively what they cannot get by themselves. I am a strong union supporter and it’s possible this could have been avoided by a strong union.

    Stronger unions getting better working conditions and pay is what we as a nation should encourage.

    And on that note both the Bush and Clinton administration seem equally bad, when it comes to mining.

  19. To put the mining fatalities into perspective consider that the fatality rate on the highways is approximately 1.5/100,000,000 miles traveled. That means that there is one fatality every 66,666,667 miles. We can’t make a direct comparison without converting miles traveled to time. Assume you have the choice of working in a coal mine or taking a job that requires you to drive. Assume that you have a number of drivers driving 40 hours/week, 50 weeks a year. Assume that the average speed is 30 mph. For every 1111 drivers there will be one fatality/year. Or to put it another way, the fatality rate for the drivers would be 0.09%/year. The fatality rate/year in coal mining has not exceeded 0.04%/year since 1990, less than half of what would be expected on the highways.

  20. Greg F,

    Nice work! That’s more like it!

    It appears that coal mining became substantially safer since 30-40 years ago.

    There is not really a difference in fatality rates between Clinton and Bush years.

  21. Avedis, it seems to me that you are misconstruing the point of the piece. Recall that A.L. specifically stated that “maybe there are exogenous factors that are driving the decline in deaths.” Pointing to other factors doesn’t undercut the point, which is that the Liberal Avenger argues that mining deaths are a result of systemic corruption and lax enforcement from the Bush administration. There is simply no evidence to support that, is there?

    I could list an entire array of legal, economic and technological changes that have impacted the mining industry in the last 50 years that would have discernibly more impact than whether a Republican or Democrat is in the White House. But that would be flogging a dead horse – each non-Bush related factor would simply mean Liberal Avenger is more wrong and I’ve seen nothing here that suggests anyone thinks he is right. If mining deaths go up and down with coal output, then it still has nothing to do with the Bush administration.

    And why does it matter? Well I’ve suggested one way to reduce fatalities and I think Jim Rockford is on to something too. But its always easier to think the lions will lie down with the lambs with Bush out of office.

  22. Inspired by Greg F (#s 18, 23), I looked at some data, too.

    Here is another plot of coal mining fatalities.

    “U.S. Underground Coal Mining Deaths, 1990-2006.”:

    A couple of notes, as they bear on A.L.’s original point and graph, and the discussion in the comments.

    * The continuing long-term trend is for surface mining to supplant underground mining. Whatever its other problems, surface mining is much safer for workers.

    * The ratios I graphed are “Deaths per million tons of coal mined” and “Deaths per thousand miners employed.” Both refer to underground-mine statistics only.

    * Decades ago, coal mining was incredibly dangerous, and the trend has been towards safer conditions. In the Forties, over 1000 deaths/year. In the Sixties, about 250 deaths/year. See “this chart.”:

    * The Clinton-to-Bush trend that A.L. saw when using the overall mining deaths figure disappears. Instead, there is a gradual shift in the direction of increasing safety, disrupted by mortality spikes when big accidents take place (13 dead at Blue Creek in 2001, 12 dead at Sago in 2006, 9? dead at Crandall Canyon in 2007).

    * The supposed trend that Liberal Avenger decries also disappears.

    For the underlying Excel spreadsheet, email me (amac at windsofchange dot net).

  23. AMac, where did you get your figures for “underground” mining? The data that has been floated around appears to combine underground and surface mining.

  24. PD Shaw,

    Here are the sources I found. I started off assuming all this stuff would be centrally compiled and easy to find (wrong). Some information is “next-report-over” from the link I offer. Also, there isn’t accord on all numbers, e.g. 1999 underground deaths are given as 19 by one source and 17 by the other.

    “Underground coal deaths 1995-2006″:
    “Underground coal deaths 1990-1999″:
    “Underground coal production 1994-2006″:
    “Underground coal production 1990-1994″
    “Underground mine employment 1990-2006″:

  25. AMac, I applaud your efforts. This is the type of analysis that must be done. Note that your plotted trend is essentially the same as Dave’s. That is good. Confirmation of Dave’s findings from your sources ensures the we are looking at the right data.

    There really is no appreciable difference between Clinton and Bush years.

    PD Shaw; I didn’t miss the point of AL’s post. I created my own point based on one that AL and others here have liked to make recently and in the past; that is, if you’re going to make statements and back them up with stats, then be sure you are using numbers and stats correctly – something AL did not, himself, do, but that AMAC and Dave have done for all of our benefit toward understanding an aspect of the mining fatality issue and, to successfully counter the allegation tossed out to us by the scurilous Liberal Avenger.

  26. Thanks AMac, you certainly did some homework. (you too Greg F)

    I thought AMac’s second link was particularly interesting. Although mainly discussing a specific type of fatality, MSHA concluded that “new at mine” was the chief contributing cause. If, as some industry experts believe, coal-mining greatly expands in the coming decades, fatalities are likely to rise disproportionately. I spoke with one mining rep. a few weeks ago who indicated that their strip-mining operation was keeping a minimal mining presence going so that they will have an experienced workforce in the future. They barely break even with Illinois high-sulfur coal.

  27. _I didn’t miss the point of AL’s post. I created my own point_

    That’s allowed? Pretty soon people will be making their own points about Karl Rove or Padilla . . .

    The devil requires me to point out the problem with looking at the proportion of the miners killed per miners working. Since 1973, the term “miner” includes office workers. Looking at Greg F’s chart shows how significant that change is. And due to increased regulations and technological changes, this is not a one-time shift in the denominator. New regs or machines could increase the number of workers, while computers or use of outside contractors could reduce them. Frankly, what we might need is a ratio of fatalities per hours underground to give us a more constant picture of how things change. I don’t think that info exists. Energy policy is often seen as a jobs program, so jobs it is.

  28. Devilish PD Shaw,

    I think you’re right about those points. There is “productivity” information that might come close to yielding “hours underground,” but I’m not sure about that. That “deaths divided by employees” closely mirrors “death divided by tons mined” suggests that mines hire when they produce more and vice versa. But it’s the (tragic) numerator that varies year to year. This is superimposed on a long-term trend of slowly rising productivity.

  29. .bq Since 1973, the term “miner” includes office workers. Looking at Greg F’s chart shows how significant that change is.

    I am not following you here. The steepest drop is prior to 1973. There are differences between the graph I posted and the one AMac posted.

    1) Mine included both surface and underground, AMac’s was just underground.

    2) My graph shows the percentage of miners killed, AMac chose to present it as deaths/ 1000 mine employees.

    I think your correct that there are many other variables that would need to be considered. I am not sure office personal would be a significant one. I have some business relationships with a couple of mines, neither of them are coal. The office staffs are relatively small, and number wise, have not changed appreciably over a couple of decades.

  30. This is cool…the only other metric I’d love to see is one that measured incidents (accidents)/mining employment and accidents/ton mined …

    A very interesting discussion, and I’ve got some more reading and thinking to do. I certainly won;t make the Clinton/Bush comparison without a serious review of the data…


  31. It is instructive to read through some of the “fatality reports.”: It is also important to understand the “accident classifications.”:

    It is a sad fact of life that accidents happen. An electrician, whom I was acquainted with at one of the mines mentioned above, was killed while working on a high voltage line some years back. He got a little careless. Although his death would have been categorized as an underground mine accident, he was 20′ in the air when it happened. This same type of accident could easily happen at a surface mine. The reason I mention this is that when making comparisons between underground and surface mines relative danger, there are some accidents that are general to all mines adding another variable to the mix.

  32. _The steepest drop is prior to 1973.__

    True. But the number of miners increases somewhat steadily throughout the 70s. In 1971 there are 142,108 miners and in 1979 there are 260,429 miners. There hadn’t been over 200,000 miners since the 1950s. Maybe I’m speculating, because the number of miners actually decreased in 1973, the first year office workers were included. My theory: the number of miners was self-reported and industry either didn’t know the definition changed or was initially wary of using the new definition. It looks to me like the number of fatalities stays relatively constant during the 1970s, it’s the number of miners that has the more significant impact.

    My point is that it seems to me the broad definition of “miners” is likely to be impacted by a number of changes to the business model that we would otherwise consider safety neutral. Counting office workers improves the safety ratio. If the number of office workers are later reduced due to computers, then the safety ratio would fall. If the mine decides to increase mechanization and hires a mechanic, then the safety ratio would improve. If the mine later decides to rent the equipment with a service contract, the safety ratio would decline. The same with hiring a licensed p.e. to draw up designs and permit applications. If she is inhouse or contract, it would directly affect the safety ratio.

    Withdrawing my advocacy for the devil, I would just suggest that all of the statistics have downsides and upsides, including the one used by A.L.

  33. Greg F, I’m sorry to hear about your friend. I was inclined to discount surface mines, not because it wasn’t potentially dangerous, but I assume it was just normal construction/industry dangerous. If I’m reading “this chart”: correctly, roughly a third of recent mining fatalities were at surface mines and so far this year, there are more fatalities at surface mines than underground mines.

  34. Unfortunately this data has 10 year jumps till you get to 1983.

    “Trends In Mining”:

    Notice the foot note:

    bq. Employment data reflects number working daily; includes employees engaged in production, preparation, processing, development, maintenance, repair, shop or yard work at mining operations. Excludes office workers and mines producing less than 10,000 short tons annually and preparation plants with less than 5,000 employee hours.

    So it would appear, unlike the previous data, that this data doesn’t include the office staff. I calculated the “percentage of office staff”: using the employment from the previous graph.

    I would say that in 1973 the Federal government started requiring a lot more paperwork. The ratio of office to mine workers was in decline for decades. With that in mind I added a new plot to the fatalities graph.

    “Updated Fatality Rate”:

    It does add a bit to the rate in the form of an offset.

  35. Wow, more charts. I may have to take back my earlier comment. The addition of office-workers does appear to impact the absolute values, but the overall trend lines pretty much shadow each other. So for the purposes of the main discussion here (which I think is a comparison of fatalties over time), it doesn’t appear to matter much whether office workers are included or not.

  36. Building on Greg’s work, three more graphs. Here, office workers are not pulled out, but as Greg showed, the trends will be unaffected.

    In the graphs that follow, “employees” are back-calculated as “Full-Time_Equivalents” (FTEs) from productivity data (40 hours of work counts as one worker-week-equivalent, etc., so overtime and low-work time is accounted for). (It doesn’t make a big difference.)

    Underground mining uses diamonds and dotted lines, surface mining uses squares and solid lines.

    “Coal Production and Deaths”: shows 1990-2006 trends for underground and surface mining. Both bounce around year-to-year. Per ton of coal produced, surface mining is clearly safer.

    “Coal Employment and Deaths”: surprises. Because surface mining is so much more productive per employee, it is roughly as dangerous from the miner’s point of view as underground mining.

    “Coal Deaths as Ratios”: shows these points in a single (busy) graph.


    * Compared to the historical data, coal mining is very safe. Compared to almost any other current-day occupation, coal mining is very dangerous.

    * Surface mining is about as dangerous as underground mining, though much more productive in terms of coal produced.

    * Fatality (& probably injury) numbers bounce around from year to year, because a few high-fatality events can dominate the statistics (like airliner crashes).

    * There is a modest, continuing trend towards lower fatality rates within both underground and surface industries.

    * There’s no evidence that Bush, Clinton, or Bush policies have had an effect that is so drastic (good or bad) that it is obviously visible through the noise. The biggest change is the continuing move from underground to surface, which has the effect of cutting mine employment, and thus cutting fatalities. (Of course, Administrations’ actions could and probably did help or hinder the long-term trends–but these effects seem modest.

  37. Underground coal mining is dangerous, but much less so than structural steel erection

    “See here”:

    Commercial fishing and logging top the list of dangerous occupations. Some jobs are simply dangerous. I cannot agree that a union shop would have prevented the mine accident. I know of many fatalities involving union ironworkers. The miners could have unionized at the drop of a hat, were they so inclined. Furthermore, Workingman’s Compensation insurance carriers typically inspect the operations they insure, and will refuse to insure someone deemed unsafe by industry standards. Unless the claimants can prove willful negligence in the mine colllapse, Workingman’s Compensation will indemnify the mine owners.

    The miners could have walked off the job, or called whatever branch of Utah or Fed OSHA regulates mine safety. I have very little respect for the various safety agencies abilities, other than to write tickets and ambiguous silly rules, enforced by morons with no industry experience. Remember. the collapse was caused by an earthquake. I am sorry for the miners and their families, but they chose to mine underground. Mine accidents are spectacular because they reach us at a primal level, that of being buried alive.

    Mechanization of mining is safer in some ways and more dangerous in others. Heavy machinery is dangerous and involves a whole other area of safety procedures, particularly underground.

  38. If we’re interested in whether mine safety has improved, it would be better to look at number of incidents where someone died than at number of fatalities.

    When there’s an unsafe practice you can’t be sure how many people will die in it. But if one person dies that’s an unsafe practice where the luck ran out.

    By looking at incidents instead of fatalities we’d smooth out the variation we get from spectacular incidents where a bunch of people die. Usually when there’s a serious accident, it’s because multiple things have gone wrong. The number of incidents is some indication of how often the multiple failings came together.

    The first time I really saw that was at my very first meeting with a caving club. A caver had had an accident and they were going over the details. He was rappelling into a 400 foot pit, and there was a whole lot of mist in the pit so he couldn’t see the bottom even with strong lights. He rigged the rope, and he was the first to rappel down. His glove got caught in the rappel rack so one hand was immobilised. He worked his hand out of the glove and was trying to get the glove out of the rack so he could control his speed better when his long hair got caught in the rack and pulled tighter and tighter until his head was caught beside the rack. Then it turned out that he’d rigged the rope 15 feet short of the bottom. And he hadn’t put a knot in the end of it. He couldn’t see what was going on. He slid off the end of the rope and fell 15 feet onto a rock pile. He would be in the hospital for 6 months with crushed vertebrae and so on. If the knot had been there, he would have been stopped and he’d have time to figure out what to do. If his head was free he could probably have seen the problem and stopped himself. If the rope had reached the bottom. If his glove hadn’t been caught his hair wouldn’t have been caught either. If he’d gotten a haircut….

    Usually we do things with multiple methods to prevent disaster. So multiple things have to go wrong before it gets real bad. What’s interesting is the number of times it happened, more than the number of people killed when it did happen. In a way one incident were 15 people died is 15 times as bad as an incident where 1 person died. But one incident where 15 people die doesn’t say as much about bad practices as 15 incidents in which one person dies each time.

  39. Good points in #42. Your account squares with my experiences; really bad things usually happen when numerous small mistakes and happenstances occur together, building on one another.

    The figures that MSHA and others have collected for nonfatal accidents are available at the sites referenced in the comments. But it’s some work to compile and present them.

    The virtue (using the term narrowly) of fatality statistics is that there is more general agreement on them. Though even there, figures from different sources can vary — 17 or 19 dead in 1999? “Incident,” “accident,” “serious accident,” “close call” all require more judgment, and thus are subject to spinning and to unintended bias.

    This is particularly a problem if one of the claims being made is that a current Administration is distorting facts/statistics/science for ideological or political purposes. The temptations must be great, and we already know the Bush administration has fallen prey to them in other areas. If not as often as its most fervent opponents claim.

  40. AMac, agreed. If we look at nonfatal accidents then different places will report different fractions of their accidents, and the same place may report different fractions different years.

    I’d prefer to look at number of incidents that result in fatalities, than number of fatalities. There’s room for uncertainty about just what’s an incident — if rescue workers die, is that a second incident? etc — but I expect that would be less of a problem than the fuzz we get from many-fatality accidents. If you count fatalities then a year with one big accident will look a lot worse than a year with the same number of accidents that happened to get fewer people killed. But the issue how many times things go far enough wrong to get people killed. It’s possible to do things that reduce the number of incidents. It would be harder to do things that reduce the number of large incidents. So weighting for number of fatalities introduces noise.

  41. A goodly part of the blame on mine deaths are environmentalists, in particular the Anti-Nuk plant lobby. At present, about 60% of our electricity comes from coal burning plants compared to 20% for nuclear. Had we continued to build nuclear plants, this ratio would be much closer together and we would have foregone some of the need to send men into inherently dangerous work locations. Likewise, for every Nuk that wasn’t built, there is an equivalent coal or natural gas plant generating the replacement power. Coal is highly polluting and natural gas emits greenhouse gases. So the anti-Nuk environmentalists likewise share the responsibility for greatly increasing pollution.

  42. #45 from Bertram Morris: “A goodly part of the blame on mine deaths are environmentalists, in particular the Anti-Nuk plant lobby.”

    Speaking as a former anti-nuke: yes, but there are also costs to nuclear development, including the dissolution of irrational but perhaps vital anti-nuclear taboos. Even a small chance to reduce the odds of a possible nuclear war is worth quite a few lives.

    (I was all for the Osirak operation and both wars against Saddam Hussein on anti-nuke as well as other grounds, and I’ve never seen any consistent anti-nuke logic displayed on the other side of those debates. If the anti-nuclear cause is a good enough reason for men to die – and it must be – then, well, get on with it. Being a Ba’athist doesn’t mean your blood is too good to be spilled for the cause.)

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