While this community, county and area of the state has tried very hard to diversify our business base, the basic fact is that when something affects coal, it affects all of us.
Coal mining has been the staple of this area ever since the population passed a very small number in the days when agriculture was the mainstay here. That was very early on. Today the boom in energy consumption and consequently higher production will help our area immensely.
Some have thought all the gas wells in the area would provide a higher standard of living when companies started drilling a lot of them a decade ago. But while mineral lease royalties to local government have increased a lot, the number of steady jobs related to this energy source does not have a high potential. Rigs come in and poke the holes in the ground and crews spend money here. Once the wells are developed, there is little labor except some maintenance on the well head and the lines to do.
So in fact, despite all the adversity we hear about coal being a dirty fuel and a dangerous mineral to extract, it still is, and looks to be the mainstay of employment in this area in one form or another for many years.
Last year the Wall Street Journal ran a story on the fact that higher demand for coal also seems to result in less safe operating records for the coal industry, particularly in mines that employ less than 50 miners.
Despite the fact that in general coal mining, based on statistics, has become safer and safer as the years have worn on. This past year and a half has presented many a sensational story for the media to gloat pessimistically about the condition of the coal mining industry.
According to the piece, mines with less than 50 workers represent 25 percent of the coal operations in the country. In addition, 14 of the 22 deaths reported in coal mining operations last year came from those kinds of mines.
However, the media in general likes to paint the coal mining industry with one brush, and it is an unsafe one. Ask any of the miners you know, and they can tell you tales of unsafe operations. Most can even tell you about unsafe circumstances in mines with large numbers of employees. But overall, in those operations safety is stressed because despite the call of high coal prices begging for increased production, most major mine management knows that a slip up on safety can cost them dearly in both dollars and public confidence.
No injury or death is acceptable in any workplace, yet they happen everyday. I recently read about one mine accident in Kentucky the operator of a shuttle car couldn't see another worker who was in the way because the mine had placed higher than regulation sides on the car to carry more coal. The owner of the mine when interviewed said that the death in this case "was just an accident and that's all."
Well someone needs to tell that guy that accidents just don't happen; there are causes, most of which can be foreseen and avoided.
The tragedy of injury or death in a coal community is all too real, and in some all too common. This area has had major disasters in mines and minor injuries as well. We are not immune. Families often just chalk it up to the fact that their loved ones work in a dangerous occupation. Surprisingly though, statistically, coal mining isn't even in most of the top 10 lists of most dangerous occupations (in terms of fatalities). Depending on whose list you are looking at the worst is logging, followed by flying aircraft and then commercial deep sea fishing. But almost any job that requires a lot of driving is dangerous too, because most years 25 percent of on the job deaths occur on the highways.
That doesn't mean coal mining is not dangerous, but what it should mean is that an occupation that once claimed in terms of major injury, health problems or fatalities, one in every two workers, has become much safer.
Still, one injury or one death is too much. Labor, management and government must continue to work together to make mines and working conditions safer.