MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- U.S. mining operations had the lowest death and injury rates in their history last year with 36 on-the-job fatalities, federal regulators said Wednesday.
That's one more than the Mine Safety and Health Administration had announced in preliminary totals in April. MSHA said it added the Dec. 28 death of a coal miner at the Choctaw Mine in Walker County, Ala.
The final figures also show the lowest rate of contractor deaths since the agency began tracking them in 1983, MSHA said. Five contractors died last year, down from 11 the previous year.
About 100 fewer coal mines were in operation last year, and the number of working miners fell from a decades-long high of 143,437 in 2011 to 137,650 last year. But MSHA says that's still the second-highest year for mining employment since 1984.
MSHA director Joe Main credits the improvements to tougher enforcement measures and to actions taken by industry.
"It's a job that's never done, as long as miners are getting injured, as long as miners are getting killed," he said. However, "I think we are moving in the right direction when you look at all the fundamental data that we have."
MSHA is also focused on internal improvements and on better education and outreach, he said.
Twenty workers died in accidents related to coal mining last year, the second-lowest number ever. The fatality rate was .0159 deaths per 200,000 hours worked, also the second-lowest ever recorded.
The rate of reported injuries at coal mines was 3.16 per 200,000 hours worked, a record low.
MSHA says the number of citations and orders at coal mines issued declined 15 percent, from 93,330 in 2011 to 79,250 last year.
In metal and nonmetal mining, MSHA said the record-low fatality rate for last year was .0079 deaths per 200,000 hours worked. Sixteen miners died in on-the-job accidents in those operations, tying 2011 results.
While the number of metal and nonmetal mines remained steady in 2012, the number of working miners increased from nearly 238,000 to more than 250,228 last year.
MSHA took several steps to improve its enforcement of safety regulations after the 2010 Upper Big Branch mine explosion killed 29 men in southern West Virginia. They include monthly impact inspections of problem mines and "Rules to Live By" issued last year.
"I do think there's a cultural change in the industry that's being driven by a lot of what we're doing," Main said. "Where there was everyone waiting for government to make you do something, we've now got some proactiveness. .<!p>.<!p>. We hope it continues along this path."