LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Amid layoffs and idled operations, the U.S. coal industry is close to setting a record low for on-the-job deaths in coal mines.
In late December, there were 11 deaths in coal mines nationwide for the year, putting the industry on track to best the record low of 16 set in 2014.
Pennsylvania is leading the nation with three deaths, the most in that state since 2008. If the numbers hold it would be the first time since 2009 that West Virginia did not record the nation's most coal mine fatalities. So far, West Virginia has had just two mining deaths, tied with Kentucky and Illinois, which had the most recent on Dec. 8. An equipment crash underground at the MC #1 mine in southern Illinois killed 20-year-old Tyler Rath, who had been mining for two years.
Alabama and Virginia have each had one mining death with just a few days left in 2015.
Seven deaths have occurred in underground mines, and four of those were attributed to roof or wall failures.
Employment in U.S. coal mines has been on the decline in recent years, especially in Appalachia, as operators cut ties with costly underground operations to better compete with cheaper western coal and a plentiful supply of natural gas.
Coal employment nationwide was down in November from 72,700 to 64,700, an 11 percent drop, compared to last year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In Kentucky, mines have lost about 4,000 jobs between 2012 and 2014.
Bruce Watzman, a spokesman for the National Mining Association, said the industry has had a heightened focus on safety with a goal of zero fatalities. He said the reduction in mine employment in recent years may also be a factor in the record low deaths.
"We've long said that a safe mine is a productive mine, and in the competitive marketplace that exists today it's important that mines operate at optimum performance and that means safely," Watzman said.
The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration is withholding comment on the fatal numbers until the year is over, according to a spokeswoman.
But after last year's record low, federal mine safety officials credited the changes they made after the Upper Big Branch disaster in West Virginia in 2010 that killed 29 men, which included more aggressive inspections at mines with poor safety records, many of them in Appalachia.