Coal's global 'race to the bottom'

US News & World Report
Deidre McPhillips, data reporter
A coal miner in Ohio.
Getty Images

Despite his campaign promises, it would be tough for U.S. President Donald Trump to bring coal mining jobs back to the country or boost the industry in any substantial way. The mining industry continues to shrink around the globe, and it isn't getting any safer, either.

While hours worked in the industry have steadily declined – dropping 28 percent between 2012 and 2016 – the number of fatalities and their frequency have increased in the past two years, according to the International Council on Mining and Metals, a partnership between industry companies and regional associations dedicated to strengthening the environmental and social performance of the mining industry.

According to the International Labor Organization, a United Nations agency, the mining industry employs about 1 percent of the world's workforce, but accounts for 8 percent of fatal workplace accidents.

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A province in northern Iran is the region most recently rocked with tragedy. More than 30 died and dozens more were trapped after an explosion in a coal mine caused a tunnel to collapse on May 3, according to Al Jazeera.

IndustriALL, a global union for workers in the mining, energy and manufacturing sectors warns that "the global commodities crisis means mining profits are under threat, and safety is often the first casualty when costs are cut."

Global consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers' annual analysis of the mining industry reports that its stock value, or aggregate market capitalization, is less than a third of what it was in 2010, dropping from $1.6 trillion to $494 billion. The report called 2015 a "race to the bottom" for an industry that is suffering through slowing demand, weakening investment and volatile prices.

In 1995, the International Labor Organization adopted the Safety and Health in Mines Convention. The document presents guidelines for employers to "eliminate or minimize the risks to safety and health in mines," including proper ventilation, regular inspection of mines and equipment and multiple exits from the mine, as well as employees' rights to report hazards and access training programs.

Only 31 countries have ratified the agreement. Iran is not among them, nor is Chile, where a world record was set in 2010 for the longest amount of time workers survived underground after a mining accident.

Despite its more than two-decade history, encouraging countries and industry leaders to ratify the ILO convention is still a top priority for IndustriALL. A list of fatal mining incidents compiled by the group presents a number of under-reported incidents. In the first three months of 2016, 36 miners were killed in a gas explosion in Russia, a gas leak in a coal mine in China killed 9 and explosions in Pakistan killed at least 18, among others.