The Most Dangerous Jobs in America

In the light of this week's West Virginia mining catastrophe, Karen Grigbsy Bates has an assessment of the most dangerous occupations in the United States.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Since Monday, we've been following events in the town of Tallmansville, West Virginia, the site of a deadly mining accident. Of course, we recognize mining can be a dangerous occupation, but we wondered how its hazards compare with those in other jobs. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates reports.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES reporting:

When an explosion caused a collapse in the Sago mine in West Virginia, initially the miners' company and families were hopeful that the 13 men trapped there might be brought out alive. Company executive Ben Hatfield the day after the explosion.

Mr. BEN HATFIELD (Mining Company Executive): We'll provide a further update as soon as we have feedback on the progress of the robotic search. While we're very disappointed by the information we've received this far, we remain determined to continue the search so long as there is hope.

BATES: But hope eventually dissolved into the grim recognition that rescue had become recovery for all but one of the miners, as President Bush acknowledged when he opened a press conference yesterday afternoon.

(Soundbite of press conference)

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Today our nation mourns those who lost their lives in the mining accident in West Virginia.

BATES: As with most mining accidents, the Sago tragedy has many observers focused on mining's inherent dangers. Scott Richardson is program manager for the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Census of Fatal Occupational Industries program. As its title indicates, the program keeps track of industry fatalities around the nation.

Mr. SCOTT RICHARDSON (Bureau of Labor Statistics): Mining has traditionally had the highest rate among all the industries that we track in using our industry classification system.

BATES: Richardson says 152 people died in mining accidents in 2004. But, he emphasizes, mining includes more than coal.

Mr. RICHARDSON: People mistakenly think of mining as coal mining, and that's a reasonable assumption. But in mining, as categorized by the classification structure that we use, mining includes coal mining and oil and gas extraction. And so I think you need to dig a little deeper into mining industry before you can really be able to isolate the risks and types of characteristics of fatalities in coal mining.

BATES: Richardson says there are different risks attached to each kind of extractive work.

Every year the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases a list of industries with the highest fatalities. That's different from categorizing risky occupations, although occupation and industry are often used as if they're the same thing. The result can generate dramatic headlines, but they're misleading. Scott Richardson notes one statistic involving the fatality rates for an unusual occupation.

Mr. RICHARDSON: We had one year one elephant trainer who was killed in his line of work, and that became the occupation with the highest rate for that year because there just aren't that many elephant trainers in the US. So I think you need to balance looking at rates with prevalence--that is, the number of incidents and other things--before you can really come up with a definition of risky or dangerous.

BATES: Other industries such as construction and agriculture have comparatively high fatality rates. But these industry-related fatalities usually occur out of public sight. The images of anguished families above ground waiting for word of their loved one trapped below will continue to impress upon us what statistics sometimes can't--the human cost of providing energy for the nation. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News, Los Angeles.

CHADWICK: There's a Q&A on mine safety at our Web site; that's npr.org.

I'm Alex Chadwick on DAY TO DAY. Stay with us.

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