In 1929, 2,785 coal miners died in the United States. That number dramatically fell in 1999 only 35 fatalities were reported across the nation.
The mining industry has made significant strides in terms of worker safety, and Craig resident Steve Hafey has been a pioneer in establishing the programs that contribute to a less hazardous work environment for miners and mine support staff.
Hafey got his start in the industry for one reason money. As a school teacher in Stratton, Colo., Hafey was paid $10,000 a year to teach English, coach three sports and work as the school's activity director.
He spent his summers in Northwest Colorado to supplement his teaching salary, hoping the winters wouldn't be as lean and that his growing family wouldn't have to live so frugally.
It was 1974 and construction had just started on the second unit of the Hayden Station Power Plant. Hafey was offered a job starting at $20,000 a year which guaranteed him two years of work in Hayden. He took the job, but soon transferred to Trapper Mine south of Craig. Twenty-three years later, he still makes the winding drive to the mine every day.
When Hafey started work at Trapper Mine, the federal government was having a hard time swallowing the nearly 300 coal mining-related deaths that were the yearly average in the 1970s, and enacted laws requiring miners to undergo extensive annual safety training.
"There was no one experienced in mine safety training, so mines had to create trainers," Hafey said. "You couldn't go out and hire a mine safety trainer in those days. They just didn't exist."
Hafey was an experienced teacher, had worked in construction and had operated heavy equipment, making him a good fit, management thought, for the job of Trapper's safety trainer.
And, he didn't let anyone down.
Hafey helped design and conducted most of the programs used at Trapper to train miners to do their jobs safer. New employees at surface mines are required to have 24 hours of safety training before they can go to work. They also must have eight hours annually of refresher training. Underground miners are required to go through 40 hours of safety training.
Trapper Mine is a surface mine that is respected as a leader in coal industry by mine inspectors. The safety and production programs in place at Trapper are mimicked in mines worldwide and mine representatives from several states and foreign countries have traveled to Trapper Mine to learn how to implement better safety and production programs at their own facilities.
Hafey has since been promoted to the personnel manager at the mine and also has public relations responsibilities. He still trains miners, but on a broader range of topics.
In the 24 years he's been in the business, Hafey has seen employee training change dramatically. Training sessions now include lessons on equal employment opportunities, discrimination, sexual harassment, affirmative action, employee benefits and leadership to name a few. He now does most of the hiring for Trapper, oversees the labor agreement and coordinates union negotiations.
Hafey has seen many changes in the industry in the time he has been with Trapper Mine, with better technology being at the top of the list.
Instead of dictating correspondence to a secretary or writing it long hand for a secretary to type, fold and mail, he can now do all the work himself on a computer, eliminating the need for another position.
"I still have an assistant, but now she does many of the same things I do," Hafey said.
Technology has also made a difference in mining processes, making them more efficient and cost effective.
"We have the same equipment. The draglines are the same ones we used in 1978," Hafey said. "In those days, an operator ran a dragline by the seat of his pants. To some degree he still does, but now he has a computer sitting next to him telling him what's going on."
Bulldozers are equipped with computers that have global positioning systems, which tell the operator exactly where to dig. Now, instead of digging and resurveying an area to see where adjustments have to be made, an operator can dig out an entire area from start to finish to exact specifications.
Hafey is proud of the work he does, and hopes that when he leaves Trapper Mine it will be better than it was when he arrived. He's especially proud of Trapper, and the people at his mine, which he calls "some of the best miners in the world."
"Mines are much safer than they were 50 years ago," he said. "Now mines lead the industry in safety concerns, safety practices and safety innovation. We take care of our people, the land and the environment," he said.
Trapper Mine practices a "safety first, production later" philosophy that has earned it several mine safety awards in the past few years.
"We're still constantly in an improvement mode," Hafey said. "We will never be satisfied until it's perfect."
As he nears the age 60, Hafey is starting to think about retiring, but not slowing down. He coaches several sports, sits on the Moffat County Board of Education, officiates wrestling, baseball and football games across the Western Slope and plays competitive racquetball.
He participated in the World Senior Racquetball Championships and worked as the head referee for the recently completed Class 2A state championship football game.
And he isn't ready to slow down.
After retiring, he plans to continue to coach youth sports, continue to broadcast the state wrestling tournament, work on improving his golf game and spend more time with Fay, his wife of 39 years. He's very proud of her, his four children and five grandchildren.
Until he retires?
"I'm going to continue to promote clean coal as the most important and economical energy resource available that enables Americans to enjoy better and more prosperous lives," he said. "I think that's very important."