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Byline: Cathleen Ferraro Scripps-McClatchy Western Service

From exotic gold mines to the more pedestrian sand and gravel pits, California's 553 mines appear to be the most dangerous nationwide.

So far this year, worker deaths statewide have outpaced the rest of the country, officials from the U.S. Department of Labor said Monday, even though California does not have the greatest number of mines.

Among the 50 states, California's number of mines ranks third after 579 mines in Texas and 604 in New York.

On the whole, the nation's roughly 11,000 metal and nonmetal mines are reporting more fatalities and at a faster pace since 1992.

The deaths of 50 miners across the country so far this year is prompting the Labor Department to launch a massive inspection and education program. Six of those fatalities were in California. Last year at this time, just 34 deaths had been reported nationwide, four of them in the state.

Labor Department records show the number of nonfatal injuries are also on the rise in all types of pits and mines.

``We're most disturbed by this trend,'' said J. Davitt McAteer, assistant secretary of labor for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, a federal agency that enforces mining regulations.

``These are tragedies that impact individuals and their families. It's not necessary for the successful mining of products.''

McAteer speculated that the number of deaths and injuries is climbing rapidly because more mines - particularly gold operations in Northern California - have opened in the past three years with ambitious production goals.

``The number of people being hired, from the rank and file to supervisors, is up, and often they have not had mining experience or health and safety training,'' he said.

``You can't just train people, either, like they're flipping hamburgers at McDonald's,'' he said, saying gradual training in mines is required.

Unlike many other states, California quarries and pits are regulated by two government agencies - the state Occupational Safety and Health Division, as well as the federal MSHA.

Local authorities concurred that the death and injury rates in California mines are rising.

``They're higher than we're comfortable with,'' said Gerald Fulghum, a senior engineer in mining and tunneling for the state agency in Northern California.

Fulghum speculated that the waning strength of labor unions in the industry in the past 10 years and the broader use of temporary workers and subcontractors have contributed to accidents and deaths in California.

Nationwide, the training of mine workers is largely voluntary. Some 10,000 of the country's 11,000 mines are exempt from inspections by the Labor Department for the adequacy of their programs.

Now 375 federal inspectors are fanning out across the country with the goal of visiting every mine. They will issue citations for safety violations and hold education classes lasting from a few hours to two days, said McAteer. One local mining executive was ambivalent about the new program.

``The No. 1 goal of any mine is safety, but if we get any more regulated, it will be difficult to take three steps without bumping into an inspector,'' said Jim Chapin, chief executive of Brush Creek Mining and Development Co. in Grass Valley.

Brush Creek holds mandatory safety meetings every week for its 25 employees and has organized rescue teams to handle emergencies. Since 1993, the company has had one mining-related broken ankle and one death unrelated to mining. A night watchman was killed when his car overturned on company property.

According to the Labor Department, however, most mining deaths and accidents involve vehicles - when a large one runs over a smaller one that has a driver inside. Other causes include cave-ins and clothing that gets entangled in equipment, yanking a worker into machinery.
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Article Details
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Statistical Data Included
Date:Oct 12, 1997

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