Barring any major incidents in the waning days of 2014, the year will be the safest on record for U.S. coal miners. So far, just 15 people have died in coal mining accidents, fewer than the prior record low of 18 deaths, in 2009.
The number of coal mining accident fatalities for 2014 is down by 68 percent from 2010, when 48 people lost their lives. The majority of them died in a single disaster, the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion in West Virginia, which claimed 29 lives.
After that event, the worst American coal mining accident since 1970, the industry appears to have improved its safety standards, said Assistant Labor Secretary Joseph Main, the head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
"I do think we're seeing a cultural change in the mining industry that's for the better," he told the Associated Press.
But Celeste Monforton, a lecturer in public health at George Washington University and former Mine Safety and Health Administration policy adviser, said the fatality figures are "a very crude measure of safety performance."
"The number of miners who work in coal mines, metal mines, aggregate mines ... that number [of fatalities] is the same as it was last year," she said. "It's actually up from two years prior to that."
Additionally, the statistics on fatalities don't capture other long-term debilitating effects of working in mines. Monforton said that improvements in emergency responses to mining accidents could reduce the number of deaths even if the mines themselves remain dangerous.
And when some workers survive accidents that previously would have been fatal, "they are often left with disabling injuries, loss of limbs or traumatic brain injuries that don't get put into these accounts," she said. Additionally, the fatality count doesn't include the number of miners who died from chronic mining-related illnesses such as black lung.
The decline of the American coal mining industry may have helped lower fatalities without making coal mining much safer. For years, coal production has been in what some analysts believe may be a permanent decline. In 2011 the slowdown led Kevin Parker, then asset management chief at Deutsche Bank, to describe the fuel as "a dead man walking."