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By Alistair MacDonald
The mining industry often displays its ability to shock with deadly accidents such as the burst dam that has left hundreds missing in Brazil, but fatal mishaps in the sector have declined in recent decades.
Tighter regulations, technology improvements and automation that have led to fewer people working in mines are behind the falling number of mining fatalities, according to data from government agencies and industry groups.
In 1950 there were 807 deaths in the U.S., which had fallen to 510 by 1960, 425 by 1970 and 27 last year, according to data from the National Mining Association.
The 27 large mining companies, including Vale, that are members of trade body the International Council on Mining and Metals reported 51 fatalities in 2017, down from 63 in 2016.
Yet deaths remain higher in parts of the developing world, where technology can be less up-to-date and regulatory oversight can be weaker.
Death tolls are particularly high in some developing countries in coal mining and through tailings dams, which collect mining waste. A tailings dam owned by mining giant Vale SA burst Friday, releasing mining waste and flooding the company's offices with mud. At least 60 people were confirmed dead and 292 people unaccounted for as of Monday morning.
In addition, available data doesn't give a definitive picture, given many countries don't produce it and some of those that do, such as China, may not provide a full account, experts say.
One factor behind the shrinking number of global fatalities is a drop in the number of people working in the mining sector around the world. "There has a been steady reduction in mine fatalities, but there has also been a reduction on the amount of hours worked," said Rod Breland, an expert in mine safety at RMB Consulting Services, Inc.
In the U.S., employment in mining and quarrying decreased 14% to 180,338 in the decade to January 2018.
In more recent years, the number of deaths has settled on a relative plateau in the U.S. and European Union. In the U.S., 27 people died in mining accidents last year, 28 the year before and 25 in 2016, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Those tallies are far lower than early last century, when deaths in the U.S. numbered more than 1,000 each year in coal mining alone, peaking in 1907 when there were an estimated 3,242 fatalities in this sector, according to the Labor Department.
In the EU, there were 67 deaths in 2016, the most recent data, down from 82 in 2010, according to Eurostat. The number of fatalities had increased by one each year in the three years before that, 2012 to 2015.
In South Africa, a total of 88 fatalities were reported in 2017, and 73 in 2016, according to the Minerals Council of South Africa. That 17% increase was the first rise in 10 years.
Few mines have been responsible for as many deaths as those in the Chinese coal industry in recent decades. In 2002, 6,995 people died in coal mines, according to a government paper. By 2017 that had fallen to 375, according to the official Xinhua News Agency.
Coal mining remains among the most deadly, often because companies have to dig deep underground to mine. Underground mining, as opposed to open-pit mining, brings the risk of gas and of mine collapse.
That difference can be seen by comparing America's two largest coal-producing states. Wyoming often produces over three times more coal than West Virginia, yet over the last two years there has been one death in the state compared with 12 in West Virginia, according to government data.
Coal is mined from open pits in Wyoming and mainly underground in West Virginia, according to the United Mine Workers of America.
As with Vale, tailings dams have also been responsible for casualties and accidents.
There were 39 tailings dam failures between 2007 and 2017, according to research from the United Nations Environment Program. Three of those were in Brazil, including a 2015 disaster at a mine co-owned by Vale, which killed 19 people.
The increasing number and size of tailings dams around the world magnifies the risks from them, according to a 2017 report by the U.N. body and Norwegian environment group GRID-Arendal.
--Daphne Zang contributed to this article.
Write to Alistair MacDonald at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
January 28, 2019 16:18 ET (21:18 GMT)
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