Technology helping to increase coal worker productivity

RISE IN PRODUCTIVITY — Mine Safety and Health Administration data indicate coal miners continue showing productivity gains, which results from using fewer workers. -- Casey Junkins

RISE IN PRODUCTIVITY — Mine Safety and Health Administration data indicate coal miners continue showing productivity gains, which results from using fewer workers. -- Casey Junkins

WHEELING — In total, West Virginia, Ohio and Pennsylvania lost more than 8,500 coal miner jobs from 2009 to 2015, but those who continue working are more productive, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration data.

Brian Lego, assistant professor at West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research, attributes the productivity increase to technological advances and “capital investments” at the mines -most notably, the proliferation of longwall mining machines.

“The main characteristic of these mines is that they are longwall operations,” Lego said. “With a longwall, you can accelerate or decelerate operations much more quickly than you can in a mine that involves more manpower.”

Robert E. Murray, chairman, president and CEO of Murray Energy Corp., recently said the company uses two longwall machines in the Marshall County Mine. Prior to Murray’s 2013 acquisition, this operation ran as Consol Energy’s McElroy Mine.

In 2011, employees at the mine produced 3.99 tons of coal for every hour worked, MSHA data show. By 2016, the number jumped to 6.35 tons of coal for every hour worked.

“Higher productivity typically produces higher wage rates,” Lego said.

Murray recently said an average miner in his company now earns approximately $90,000 per year, including benefits.

“We are pleased that the Marshall County Coal Co.’s Marshall County Mine has continued to improve its productivity since we acquired the operation on Dec. 5, 2013,” Murray spokesman Gary Broadbent said. “We attribute these improvements to our diligent management of the mine, improved underground equipment, and the continued emphasis on safety as the absolute highest priority at the Marshall County Mine and all of Murray Energy Corp.’s mining operations.”

The longwall machine rips through coal in underground mines in a way men with pickaxes and shovels could have only imagined. According to coaleducation.org, the massive shearers cut coal from the block face, allowing it to fall onto a conveyor belt for removal.

The Marshall County facility is only one of 11 mines in northern West Virginia, eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania to increase worker productivity from 2011 to 2016. Information shows Murray’s Ohio County Mine hiked productivity from 3.14 tons to 5.99 tons per worker hour, while Murray’s Century Mine went from 5.62 tons in 2011 to 6.52 tons last year.

Consol Energy’s coal spinoff, CNX Coal Resources, has also seen significant productivity gains, as its Bailey Mine in Pennsylvania saw workers go from producing 4.61 tons per hour in 2011 to 7.69 tons per hour last year.

The Alliance Resource Partners Tunnel Ridge Mine in Ohio County was not yet fully operational in 2011. However, data show its workers mined 6.89 tons of coal for every employee hour in 2016.

As recently as 1980, the national productivity rate for coal mining was less than 2 tons per worker per hour, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

“Undoubtedly, coal mines with higher rates of productivity are better able to compete in this extremely depressed coal marketplace,” Broadbent added. “Accordingly, these coal miners are more likely to be able to continue working, despite the increased use of cheap natural gas to generate electricity and the continued impacts of anti-coal, job-killing regulations promulgated by the Obama administration.”

As recently as 2011, southern West Virginia mines accounted for well over two thirds of coal produced within the Mountain State. By mid-2015, however, mines in the northern part of the state began to pass those in the south. Industry leaders have said much of the coal in the southern part of the state is more difficult to extract than is the coal in the northern portion.

“The northern West Virginia mines have not been mined out as much as the southern West Virginia mines,” Lego said. “There is still a lot of coal in southern West Virginia, but it takes a lot more manpower to produce. When the market is challenged, it doesn’t make as much economic sense.”

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