Since 29 miners perished in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine in April, 2010, the deadliest mine disaster in 40 years, U.S. coal mines have grown safer, according to government inspection data.

Industry and federal officials attribute the improvement to increased enforcement of regulations and better training by mining companies themselves, The Wall Street Journal reports.

As measured by hours of inspection time, serious violations fell 12 percent during the first three quarters of 2011 compared with 2010, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

On the other hand, 14 coal miners have been killed in accidents so far this year. That compares with 48 killed while working last year — including the 29 at Upper Big Branch– and 18 in 2009.

MSHA, which oversees the nation’s 14,500 mines, including 2,000 coal mines, was criticized for lax enforcement after the deadly accident at the Massey Energy Co. mine in West Virginia.

The agency responded by targeting mines that it viewed as posing the greatest risk. Several were shut down until improvements were made, and a few were closed permanently, according to The Journal.

“I believe the efforts we’re making are having a positive impact on improving mine safety in this country,”  said Joe Main, Assistant Secretary of Labor and head of MSHA.

But Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, warns fewer violations don’t necessarily mean mines are getting safer.

“There are still many mines out there which are not following the law and appear not to care to do so,” Smith told The Journal. “The mines weren’t any safer for the 14 coal miners killed thus far this year. ”


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