FP Explainer

Is Coal More Dangerous Than Other Kinds of Mining?

Only slightly, but the chance of catastrophe is much higher.

PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images
PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images

The Coal Miner’s Burden: An FP slideshow.

It's been a heartbreakingly tragic two months for coal. In early April, 29 coal miners were lost after an accident at West Virginia's Upper Big Branch mine in the worst U.S. mining disaster in four decades. On May 8, an explosion at a Siberia's Raspadskaya mine killed at least 66 Russian miners. China didn't have long to celebrate the rescue of 115 miners in northern China before an explosion at a mine in the country's southwest killed 21. Then on Monday, 21 miners were trapped underground by an explosion at a major mine in northern Turkey; the rescue effort is still ongoing. So, is coal mining more dangerous than other kinds of mining?

The Coal Miner’s Burden: An FP slideshow.

It’s been a heartbreakingly tragic two months for coal. In early April, 29 coal miners were lost after an accident at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch mine in the worst U.S. mining disaster in four decades. On May 8, an explosion at a Siberia’s Raspadskaya mine killed at least 66 Russian miners. China didn’t have long to celebrate the rescue of 115 miners in northern China before an explosion at a mine in the country’s southwest killed 21. Then on Monday, 21 miners were trapped underground by an explosion at a major mine in northern Turkey; the rescue effort is still ongoing. So, is coal mining more dangerous than other kinds of mining?

Depends on how you look at it. Without a doubt, mining is an extremely dangerous occupation, but it’s getting safer, particularly in the United States. In 2009, a record-low 34 workers were killed in mining accidents. Eighteen of those were coal miners. In the early 20th century, the numbers were typically in the thousands. This shift is due to both improved safety standards and technology as well a move away from underground mines towards surface mining and controversial mountaintop-removal mining.

Statistically, coal mining remains more dangerous than other kinds of mining, but only slightly. According to the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, the rate of coal-mining deaths in the United States between 2001 and 2005 was 0.15 per million production hours. For metal and non-metal (e.g. stone quarrying) mining, the average rate was 0.1. The mining sector as a whole saw a fatality rate of 34.8 per 100,000 workers compared with 128.9 for America’s most dangerous job — fishing.

In any given year, though, disasters like the Upper Big Branch explosion, which killed more coal miners than died all last year, can send fatality rates skyward. West Virginia alone has had three major mining disasters in the last decade, all caused by explosions in coal mines. The culprit in such cases is usually methane gas, which accumulates in coal beds and can explode when the bed is penetrated during mining. (Metal mines typically operate in a much smaller area and don’t have explosive gasses to contend with, making mass-casualty accidents much less likely.)

While mining accidents remain thankfully rare in the United States, they’re a disturbing fact of life in China, where safety regulations have not kept up with the country’s rapid, and largely coal-powered growth. According to the Chinese government’s own statistics, the country, which produces only 35 percent of the world’s coal, accounts for 80 percent of the industry’s fatalities. Fatalities have fallen dramatically in recent years as the government has moved to shut down smaller unregulated private mines, but an average of seven miners are still killed in China every day.

The human tragedy and dramatic rescues of mining accidents make for gripping media events, but most of coal’s victims actually never set foot in a mine. Around 10,000 people are killed every year in the United States from exposure to pollution from coal-fired power plants, according to the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. In China, the number is likely closer to 400,000. And unlike on-the-job fatalities, that number is on the rise.

Thanks to Syd S. Peng, chair of Mining Engineering at West Virginia University.   

Got a question for the FP explainer? Email explainer [at] ForeignPolicy.com

Joshua E. Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy.

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