LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The nation's coal mines set a record for the lowest number of on-the-job fatalities last year, with 16, the federal mining agency said Monday.
There were two fewer deaths than the previous low of 18 in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety and Health Administration. The agency said it is the lowest annual number of coal mining deaths ever recorded.
Forty miners died in 2014 in all mines, which include metal and non-metal operations.
"While MSHA and the mining industry have made a number of improvements and have been moving mine safety in the right direction, these deaths, particularly those in the metal and nonmetal industry, makes clear the need to do more to protect our nation's miners," MSHA chief Joseph Main said in a statement Monday.
The most common causes of mine deaths last year involved hauling equipment and machinery: Five haulage and five machinery-related deaths occurred in coal mines, and eight deaths were blamed on hauling equipment in metal and nonmetal mining, MSHA said.
West Virginia had the most coal-related deaths in 2014, with five. There were two deaths each in Kentucky, Virginia and Wyoming, and one each in Alabama, Illinois, Indiana, Montana and Utah.
Coal-mine employment in Appalachia has dropped drastically in recent years, meaning there are fewer miners working in fewer underground mines, where most coal-related fatalities typically occur. Nine of the 16 deaths last year occurred in Appalachia, six of those at underground mines in Virginia and West Virginia.
The total number of coal mines operating in the U.S. fell to 1,701 last year, from 1,944 in 2010, according to MSHA.
Despite the mine closings, nationwide coal-employment numbers are similar to what they were in the early 2000s, when there were twice as many annual deaths, MSHA said.
Main has credited increased federal enforcement efforts after the 2010 Upper Big Branch underground mine explosion in West Virginia, which killed 29 workers. Main said more surprise team inspections at troubled mines and other efforts are helping curb safety violations.
The Upper Big Branch mine was owned by Massey Energy at the time of the 2010 explosion. Massey's former CEO, Don Blankenship, was indicted in federal court in November on charges he conspired to violate safety and health standards. He has pleaded not guilty, and faces up to 31 years in prison if convicted.