Low Productivity in American Coal Mining:

Causes and Cures

EMD-81-17: Published: Mar 3, 1981. Publicly Released: Mar 3, 1981.

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In order to reduce the Nations's reliance on imported oil, national energy policy calls for greater use of coal. The Nation's ability to make this transition to coal depends on the coal industry's ability to meet future coal production needs. Given the importance which labor productivity plays in the quantity of coal produced, productivity is crucial to meeting national energy goals. Between 1947 and 1969, the coal industry experienced a threefold increase in productivity. However, since 1969, overall coal industry productivity has declined 26 percent with a 43-percent decline in underground mine production. GAO evaluated the major factors determining productivity in the coal industry and identified those mainly responsible for the decline in labor productivity. The review is based on an analysis of a large coal mine database, interviews with mining personnel at 44 mines, and discussions with Government and private officials.

The decline in underground productivity during the 1970's was closely tied to the reduced quality of labor-management relations, especially after 1973. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) regulation was a primary cause of declining underground productivity between 1970 and 1973, but was less important afterwards. MSHA regulation reduces mine production primarily by requiring that increased labor be spent on nonproduction activities and by reducing available production time. The enactment of strict State reclamation laws is largely responsible for the decline in productivity in surface mining. Although coal mining technology has not caused productivity to decline, mechanization and technological innovation slowed in both underground and surface mines in the late 1960's and has not advanced sufficiently to offset the loss due to other causes. GAO found that geological conditions in underground mines, often cited as a possible cause for declining productivity, have not worsened or led to lower productivity. Since 1969, underground mines have experienced worsening labor-management relations as reflected in the increase in the number of strikes. Legislation, which authorized more stringent health and safety standards, vastly increased Federal enforcement powers and resources. Increased enforcement activity resulted in lower productivity during the peak of inspections in 1973. While MSHA regulation reduced fatalities in coal mines dramatically, nonfatal injuries have stayed high.

Matters for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Matter: Congress should authorize the Department of Labor to fund coal industry programs to train coal management and labor in effective communication and grievance handling.

  2. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Matter: Congress should increase the required minimum amount of on-the-job safety training for supervisors and miners.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Labor should direct MSHA to analyze the impact on industry of increasing training requirements and provide further assistance if warranted.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  2. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: MSHA should devise ways to minimize the regulatory lag which now delays introduction of productivity enhancing equipment that does not impair mine safety.

    Agency Affected: Department of Labor

  3. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Bureau of Mines should ensure that its products are adequately tested in working coal mines to establish and demonstrate their benefits.

    Agency Affected: Department of the Interior

  4. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Energy should direct the Office of Coal Mining to increase efforts in those areas which have high potential for productivity gains. Those projects that should receive special attention are the ones which reduce MSHA regulation's adverse productivity impacts, improve longwall mining techniques, and improve face haulage.

    Agency Affected: Department of Energy

 

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