Mining Program: Economic Factors

miner and tunnel entrance

Input: Economic Factors

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, depressed prices for energy and commodities resulted in severe contractions in many extractive industries. Employment in the coal, metal mining, and oil and gas industries was particularly hard hit. In recent years, as worldwide demand has picked up, prices have increased substantially, resulting in improved profitability and employment. Some safety issues that are present across the sector include the following:

  • The workforce in these industries tends to be significantly older than is typical throughout the United States. Older miners are more vulnerable to musculoskeletal injuries. Also, as these older workers retire, an entire new generation of miners must be introduced to the industry. Training is essential to ensure that safety standards are maintained during the transition.
  • Workers in extractive industries tend to work longer hours than other workers. For example, the typical nonsupervisory worker in oil and gas worked 43.5 hours per week in 2004, compared with 33.7 hours for all nonsupervisory workers on private nonfarm payrolls. Coal miners worked even longer hours. In addition, shift work is also common because many mines and drilling rigs operate continuously. Longer hours and shift work make workers (particularly older workers) more vulnerable to mistakes and injuries.
  • Although most jobs in the sector are in surface mines or oil and gas production, underground mines are the most hazardous workplaces.
Coal Mining
  • Coal accounts for half of the electricity production in the United States. In recent decades, the Clean Air Act has accelerated a major shift in coal production from eastern mines to large western surface mines. Nevertheless, 78% of all mining jobs are east of the Mississippi River, and 57% are in underground mines.
  • The recent mine disasters have focused political attention on mine safety regulations. New legislation, together with the robust profits of most major coal companies, may create a climate in which major new investments in mine safety are possible.
  • The combination of higher prices and depleted reserves (particularly in the Central Appalachian coalfields) is leading coal companies to mine in more difficult geologic conditions. These mines can be deeper, gassier, and more highly stressed because of past mining.
  • Recent decades have seen a shift towards safer longwall technology for underground mining, though this trend has slowed lately. No radical new developments in mining technology are expected in the near future.
  • Over the long term, the growth in demand for energy combined with the Clean Air Act is expected to lead a number of electric utilities to install scrubbers; others construct new power plants with cleaner coal-burning technology. In response, a number of new underground mines are anticipated in the northern Appalachian and Midwestern coalfields. In the Central Appalachian coalfields, production is expected to decline because of the exhaustion of many of the better coal reserves.
Metal Mining
  • Many metal mines are in remote areas and work long shifts, resulting in long commutes and extended work times. This increases the likelihood of stress from fatigue, time away from family, and poor sleep patterns.
  • With the aging workforce, metal mining will soon be faced with the loss of experienced miners familiar with the unique requirements of metal mining (particularly underground mining), as well as a potential shortage of experienced mining engineers in the areas of ventilation and rock mechanics.
Nonmetal Mining
  • Nonmetallic minerals include the crushed stone, cement, sand, and gravel used in construction, as well as the minerals used to make wallboard, agricultural chemicals, and many other products. The demand for these minerals tends to be more stable than for other commodities in the sector, typically growing with the economy.
  • Environmental concerns continue to make it difficult to open new surface quarries near urban areas. Many stone mines are going underground as a result. Frequently, none of the miners has previous underground experience, so safety training is essential.
Oil and Gas Extraction
  • Current high levels of drilling activity has led to a shortage of trained workers. To address these shortages the Department of Labor has issued several grants to specific oil and gas training facilities in the western United States: Midland College in West Texas, San Juan College in Farmington, NM, and the High Plains Technology Center in Woodward, OK.
  • Technological innovations have expanded exploration and development worldwide, although longterm employment is currently projected to decline. The oil and gas extraction industry has a history of cyclical trends in activity.
  • As more large domestic oil and gas fields are depleted, major oil companies are focusing their exploration and production activity in foreign countries. Consequently, smaller companies with less capital for foreign exploration and production are drilling an increasing share of domestic oil and gas. Technology has significantly decreased the risk and cost for smaller producers.


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Page last reviewed: November 8, 2012