Historian Jim Powell writes:
Since the text refers to 1901, my first thought is that hourly pay rates generally might not have gone up for 20 years, since the trend for the last two or three decades of the 19th century was declining prices. With a fixed, unchanging wage, everybody was able to buy more and more for their money. HISTORICAL STATISTICS OF THE UNITED STATES, FROM COLONIAL TIMES TO 1970, published by the Commerce Department in two volumes, 1975, indicates there were falling prices for all or just about all commodities (I haven’t had time to look them up again). So, living standards were going up. Prices didn’t begin rising again till the first decade of the 20th century. Selecting 1900 or 1901 as a date when people would reasonably not have had a pay raise (for the same work) in 20 years ought to make a reader suspicious.
As for coal mining fatalities – I did a quick Google search and came across a US Department of Labor table indicating the number of coal miners and coal mining fatalities annually, from 1900 through 2013, http://www.msha.gov/stats/centurystats/coalstats.asp
In 1900, there were 448,581 coal miners and 1,489 coal mining fatalities – 0.0033193, or approximately 1/3rd of 1 percent.
I don’t know if that’s high or low, or whether the trend was improving or worsening.
One would assume high death rates would make it harder and more expensive for coal mine operators to recruit miners. Also major accidents, like cave-ins, would disrupt production and get a lot of publicity, likely to affect a coal mine operator’s ability to recruit new miners from outside his area.
Anyway, in 1910 (probably before much safety regulation or massive unionization), there were 725,030 coal miners and 2,821 coal mining fatalities, or 0.0038908 – a somewhat higher death rate.
In 1920, there were 784,621 coal miners and 2,272 coal mining fatalities, or 0.0028956 – a notable drop in the death rate.
I’m sure you have seen policy analyses showing that accident rates, death rates or whatever the data might be for a phenomenon (such as auto accidents, workplace accidents or environmental pollution) – began improving BEFORE federal regulations were put into effect or intensified, reflecting the self-interest of businesses. I expect reduced coal mining death rates would probably have more to do with better technologies than with the number of pages in the CODE OF FEDERAL REGULATIONS devoted to coal mining.
I haven’t had the occasion to study much about coal mining, but I expect some types of coal deposits are more susceptible to mining accidents than others.
Jim then wrote back to add:
I forgot to address the claim that sometimes mine operators failed to pay miners per ton of coal mined. I have to imagine that an experienced coal miner would know he’s being cheated, if a mine operator claims a miner produced only a ton of coal when actually he produced 4,000 pounds. That’s a big difference, and one has to expect that a miner would step up efforts to find an alternative for earning a living. It would be interesting to find out where businesses might have been expanding not far from coal mines. For example, I recall that during the first half of the 20th century textile mills were moving out of (costly) New England and relocating in the South. Those factories probably drew at least some people from coal mines.
For sure, as we know, the best protection for workers was and is the availability of alternatives – and sound policies that make it easier and cheaper for more alternatives to develop.