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Coal mining deaths rise sharply after hitting historic low

Pennsylvania coal miners have a long tradition of doing hard and dangerous work. The occupation is safer than in the past but still dangerous. Coal mining deaths hit a record low of eight in 2016 but almost doubled the following year. Federal standards involving coal miners' safety are now under review in Washington.

There were 15 coal mining deaths in 2017; most of them occurred in West Virginia. One of the deaths was in Pennsylvania. More than 50 years ago, in 1966, there were 233 deaths. There are fewer mine workers today, but the significantly lower death rates in recent years are also due in part to stricter safety standards. Rules that restrict coal miners' exposure to rock and coal dust were beefed up during Barack Obama's presidency, but now the Mine Safety and Health Administration under Donald Trump is reconsidering those rules.

Most of the coal mine deaths in 2017 were accidents involving vehicles and machinery. None were caused by explosions. Newly appointed MSHA chief David Zatezalo said after his appointment that his top priority is preventing people from getting hurt.

Pennsylvania coal miners are covered by workers' compensation, which is a program that was designed to protect both workers and employers. The benefit the program provides to employers is protection from personal injury lawsuits. Some workers may not be aware that by filing a workers' comp claim, they are waiving their legal right to sue their employer. Filing a claim is not a guarantee of compensation, but an important difference between workers' comp and a personal injury lawsuit is that a workers' comp claim does not require proof of negligence to be successful.

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