For some, hearing about coal mines might evoke images of black and white photos or a period film. After all, haven't we turned to other sources of energy? It is true that we are no longer heating up our homes with coal, nor is coal powering our ships and trains. The amount of active coal mines is steadily declining as well. However, we do still burn a great deal of coal to generate electricity, and we even use coal in manufacturing processes and for its byproducts as well.
In fact, the United States has the biggest and the sixth biggest active coal mines in the world (both are in Wyoming). There are thousands of active mines across the U.S., and these not only represent multi-billion dollar industries, but they also represent hundreds of thousands of mine workers engaging in invaluable but highly dangerous work.
In this article, we'll look at the history of the U.S. mining industry and where it stands today on matters of miner safety.
Tragic Coal Mine Accidents, Not Just a Thing of the Past
From 1876 to 1950, there were 553 coal mine disasters documented that each resulted in 5 or more fatalities. That represents a staggering number of fatal accidents without even accounting for the undoubtedly many miners killed in smaller accidents, and tragically, many of those documented disasters represent far more than five casualties.
The three worst coal mine disasters in U.S. history occurred in:
- 1907 - An explosion in Monongah mines #6 and #8 in West Virginia killed 362.
- 1913 - An explosion in Stag Canon mine, New Mexico killed 263.
- 1909 - A fire broke out in the Cherry Mine in Illinois, killing 259.
Some other major coal mine disasters in later decades include the Centralia mine explosion in 1947 that killed 111 miners, followed in 1951 by another explosion in another Illinois mine, this time in West Frankfort. 119 people were killed.
Since 1950, there have been 53 such multi-fatality disasters in coal mines. While it's a smaller number than in the previous era, it still represents an appalling number of preventable deaths.
Some of the more recent coal mine disasters occurred in:
- 2006 - An explosion in West Virginia's Sago Coal Mine trapped 13 miners. After two days, only one of the miners had survived.
- 2006 - A fire broke out at the Aracoma Mine (also in West Virginia) and two miners lost their lives.
- 2006 - An explosion in one of Kentucky's Darby Mines killed five.
- 2007 - Six miners died from falls in one day at Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah.
- 2010 - An ignition or explosion of gas in West Virginia's Upper Big Branch Mine killed 29 miners.
In the 2010 tragedy, the Upper Big Branch Mine had racked up over 1,100 violations in just the 3 years before, some of which were major enough for the federal government to shut down sections of the mine time and again. This particular explosion was the result of damaged cutting equipment that sparked, creating a fire from the coal dust and methane gas present. Even then, water sprayers should have contained the fire, but because they were faulty and clogged, the small fire turned into a full-fledged catastrophe.
While most of the above disasters recount multi-fatality incidents, individual fatalities and multi-injury incidents are also still occurring. We haven't even delved into serious injury statistics yet. While safety measures have improved matters, the fact remains that coal mining is still a dangerous occupation.
Disasters at Metal & Nonmetal Mines
The three worst metal and nonmetal mine disasters in the U.S. happened in:
- 1917 - A fire at Granite Mountain Shaft in Montana (a copper mine) killed 163.
- 1926 - Flooding at Barnes Hecker Mine in Michigan (an iron mine) killed 51 miners.
- 1972 - A fire at Sunshine Mine in Idaho (a silver mine) killed 91, many dying from carbon monoxide exposure.
Since 1970, the only other two non-coal mine disasters that involved at least five fatalities occurred in:
- 1971 - Hydrogen sulfide gas at a fluorspar mine in Illinois killed 7.
- 1970 - An explosion at a salt mine in Louisiana killed 5.
While there are still serious accidents that cause injuries and fatalities in these industries, there appear to have been significant advancements in safety protocols and technology since the 70s. By the numbers, coal mining to this day is a significantly and consistently more hazardous industry. That said, the dangers listed below apply to coal miners and non-coal miners alike.
Nine Dangers for Miners
The following list is far from exhaustive. We will just scratch the surface of these mining dangers before delving into who is responsible for reducing or removing these hazards.
The mining risks that we will examine include:
- Respiratory Issues
- Fires & Explosions
- Equipment Injuries
- Heat Strain
- Hearing Damage & Loss
- Rock Falls & Roof Cave-Ins/Ground Falls
1) Respiratory Issues from Mining
Whatever the type of mining, workers run the risk of breathing in dust, toxic gases, and other fumes that build up in tight spaces. This can include exposure to carcinogens such as diesel exhaust, asbestos, radon, and other substances that can cause serious injury or diseases. For instance, breathing in silica from sand, quartz, and other rocks can lead to silicosis, a lung disease. Coal miners in particular have a heightened risk of COPD and lung cancer. More immediately fatal incidents such as carbon monoxide poisoning occur in mining as well.
Improving the ventilation and design of work sites can help funnel out and/or reduce the concentration of toxic gases and substances. Equipping mine workers with proper personal protective equipment (PPE) is also key to reducing miners' exposure to dangerous substances.
Black Lung Disease
Inhaling coal mine dust specifically can lead to black lung (pneumoconiosis), which makes breathing difficult and leaves the lungs with scars. As it progresses, black lung disease eventually suffocates you or causes heart failure. According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), about 1,000 people die from this occupational disease every year, and it can be found in coal miners as early as their 30s and 40s. The most advanced, serious form of black lung is progressive massive fibrosis, and the occurrence of this form of black lung has steadily increased in the past decades. Black lung screenings are advised so as to catch signs of lung issues before they develop this incurable disease.
2) Fires & Explosions in Mines
Not only can toxic gases and dust infiltrate miners' lungs, but without proper ventilation, they can also build up in mines as a fire or explosion hazard. If this gas and dust buildup occurs, it does so in a worksite that is already hot, filled with various electrical sources, and has lots of dangerous machinery present. One misfire from a tool can be catastrophic in such cases.
Ventilation is key to reducing and controlling dangerous gases, keeping them from building up and ensuring proper airflow. In order to avoid stray sparks, it's also critical to ensure that equipment is in good repair.
3) Mining Equipment Injuries & Accidents
A report looking at injuries from just maintenance and repair work in U.S. mining found that between 2002 and 2011, there were on average each year:
- At least 20 amputated fingers
- 180 fractured hands and fingers
- 455 hand and finger lacerations
These often involved struck-by and caught-in accidents, and many of these finger amputations were from repairing or maintaining moving equipment.
Now mining companies are compliant with current standards if they use a single, large piece of grated metal as a point-of-contact guard to keep miners from moving machine parts, but these types of long grated guards were responsible for more than 2,000 injuries to hands, backs, and shoulders during the timespan that this report investigated. If more guards were of a lightweight material, this could reduce struck-by and caught-in accidents. If these guards also employed hinges, such that only sections had to be assembled and moved at a time, this would also make the guard more lightweight. Adding handles to these guards would help avoid pinch points, also reducing caught-in injuries.
4) Heat Strain & Mine Workers
Rock formations deep underground give off heat, it's often humid, and miners are operating machinery like blasting and welding equipment. Even the lights can emit heat. Altogether, temperatures can reach 125 to 130 degrees Fahrenheit at some sites. In less extreme circumstances, it still only takes 79 degrees to be considered a hot work site, and mining definitely qualifies.
According to the MSHA, mining can subject workers to heat-related disorders and illnesses, such as:
- Heat rash
- Heat cramps
- Heat exhaustion/dehydration (nausea, dizziness, rapid pulse, profuse sweating, muscle cramps, and more)
- Heat syncope (collapse or fainting from heat)
- Heat fatigue (which leads to impaired motor skills, being more prone to accidents)
- Heat stroke
This doesn't just apply to underground mining. Above ground, work on surface mines can add the danger of sunburn, which becomes a cancer risk if it happens often enough, and grueling work out of doors can of course still reach dangerous temperatures that can induce heat exhaustion and sunstroke. Whatever the cause and severity of heat strain, it can make it more difficult to focus and stay alert, making already risky tasks more dangerous.
Safety measures to mitigate these serious health risks would again include proper ventilation, proper blasting techniques to help keep temperatures lower, insulated piping to help move hot groundwater away from a site, and so forth. Proper PPE can also help regulate a safe body temperature, and air conditioning can also be appropriate at certain sites. Outdoor canopies to protect from the sun as well as shielding apparatuses to keep dryers and kilns from radiating heat can also help.
5) Hearing Damage & Loss in Mining Work
The mining industry is one of the top industries when it comes to the highest frequency of hazardous noise. In this instance, stone, sand, and gravel mines are some of the biggest offenders. Due to this noise exposure, miners experience hearing damage and hearing loss at a consistent rate.
One out of four miners—this includes all types of mining—currently has hearing issues already, and by retirement age, four out of every five miners will be hearing impaired.
Any degree of hearing loss while on the job makes matters that much more dangerous, as many miners may not be able to hear well enough to notice machinery, alerts, and other crucial information as clearly as they need to. In addition to hearing loss, miners may also have to deal with tinnitus, a ringing of the ears, as a result of harmful noise exposure.
As far as mitigation measures go, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is currently working to produce noise control solutions for some of the loudest mining machinery, a few of which can already be implemented, such as drill bit isolators and a dual-sprocket continuous mining machine chain. It's a start, but this is still a serious, ongoing occupational hazard.
6) Rock Falls & Roof Cave-Ins/Ground Falls
Rock falls are one of the reasons that underground mining has one of the highest fatality rates of any U.S. occupation. Even when there is roof support or other structures, small pieces of rock can still fall through, and they injure 400 to 500 coal miners annually. The roof and rib support structures themselves, meant to protect miners from rock falls, can fall on miners and severely or fatally injure them. Safety improvements in this area seem to rely on early fall warning devices, better bolting equipment, and personal bolter screens.
Similarly, ground falls are the reason that more than 90% of underground mines require some sort of roof or rib support. According to NIOSH, ground falls account for 8 to 10 deaths every year and inflict more than 800 injuries annually. That accounts for 30% of deaths in underground mining and 15% of injuries. Currently, software is available to optimize support systems, roof support, surface control, and more. It's a matter of whether companies are availing themselves of this technology, and of testing by NIOSH to continue finding better ways to build supports for mine roofs.
7) Drowning Accidents in Mines
In the past, flooding killed dozens of miners in catastrophic accidents, but even now, the dangerous work of mining still occurs near bodies of water, a danger that is aggravated when miners are operating heavy machinery or relying on malfunctioning equipment.
In 2022 and 2023, miners died from drowning:
- After a floating pump platform capsized
- In a dredge pond of a sand mine
- When operating an excavator that fell into a sediment pond
- After falling into an underground sump, possibly the result of a faulty float switch box
8) Falls Are a Significant Cause of Deadly Mining Accidents
Falling from heights accounts for about 25% of fatal accidents in mining. In a worksite as dangerous as a surface or underground mine, slip/trip and falls also contribute to grievous injuries. In fact, per the 2015 report referenced for mining equipment injuries, slip and fall accident injuries accounted for the most days of work missed due to injury.
9) Fatigue & Mining Accidents
While fatigue is not usually considered an injury in and of itself, the reality is that 10- to 12-hour shifts have been normalized in the mining industry. Fatigue inevitably sets in during such extended shifts, impairing alertness, abilities, and response times. With such demanding work, these long hours have been linked to an increase in preventable injuries and fatalities.
Muscle fatigue also contributes to injuries. Back and shoulder injuries are among the most frequent reasons for missed days of work, and these injuries aren't from accidents, but from performing a physically demanding job without mechanical assistance. Even hand tools bring the risk of overexertion injuries, especially in instances where miners have to work with hammers or pry bars at shoulder height or higher repeatedly. Assistance from supplying hoists, cranes, and other tools can help limit the amount of heavy and awkward lifting required of miners.
Who Regulates the Mining Industry?
There are several agencies involved in regulating different aspects of the mining industry, which include:
- Worker safety & health - U.S. Department of Labor's Mine Safety & Health Administration (MSHA)'s
- Surface coal mining regulation - Department of the Interior's Office of Surface Mining Reclamation & Enforcement
- Mining on federal land - Department of Interior Bureau of Land Management, and U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service
- Waterways and wetlands affected by mining - U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
- Investigations & site cleanups - Environmental Protection Agency
State agencies are also involved in regulations.
The MSHA is the main agency that we're concerned with in this article. This agency is responsible for investigating all fatal accidents and for replying to complaints issued, such as complaints from miners saying that their rights to safety are being violated.
After the 1972 fire killed 91 miners in Idaho, this eventually spurred on the MSHA's Mine Safety & Health Act of 1977, which only went so far as to:
- Mandate annual safety and health inspections to make sure miners had a safe work environment (thankfully this number was upped later, but not until 2006!)
- Require mine operators to immediately report accidents, injuries, and illnesses
- Mandate training programs accordingly
- Require approval before crews could use certain equipment in underground mines with gas
After the Sago Coal Mine and Aracoma Mine disasters in 2006, the MINER Act was enacted to add to the Mine Safety & Health Act.
The MINER Act sought to improve emergency responses, such as through:
- Better evacuation and drill training
- Improved technology for two-way communication between those above and below ground
- Better sealing off of abandoned areas from active sites
- And more
It also requires that surface mines get two annual inspections by the MSHA, and that underground mines get a minimum of four annual inspections. There also cannot be any notice given ahead of time when an inspection is coming. This MINER act, as of 2015, covered roughly 350,000 miners
Per current regulations, underground coal miners must each be equipped with a self-contained self-rescuer (SCSR), aka a closed-circuit escape respirator (CCER), or at least have easy access to such a device, and these respirators must be ones that are approved by NIOSH and the MSHA. In addition to these oxygen devices, shelters and lifelines also need to be readily accessible for miners.
Fines of $5,000 to $60,000 can be imposed for each time a mine operator fails to report to MSHA within 15 minutes of a death, injury, or entrapment that could turn deadly. Depending on the severity of other violations, civil fines of up to $220,000 can be levied. Criminal penalties can range from up to $250,000 for a first offense and $500,000 for a second offense.
Which Companies Have Terrible Safety Track Records?
A Pattern of Unpaid Fines
A 2014 investigation by NPR was able to outline how a pattern of outstanding fines tends to line up with companies that have terrible safety records. Conversely, mining companies that promptly pay their fines tend to have safer workplaces.
It was found that 2,700 mining company owners had about $70 million in outstanding fines, with 9 of those accounting for over $1 million apiece
In that investigation, the companies with the most unpaid fines were:
- D&C Mining Corp. (owned by Horace Garrison Hill)
- Kentucky Darby, Harlan Fuel, Orion Resources, Mill Branch Mining, L&E Mining, K&D Mining, and Neco Energy (all are owned by Ralph Napier Sr. and others)
- Wilcoal Mining, and Solid Fuel and Roses Creek Mining (both are owned by Darrell Wagner)
- Southern Coal Corp. (owned by James C. Justice II; has many subsidiaries)
- Hidden Splendor Resources/America West Resources (owned by Alexander Walker III)
- Inner Mountain Mining, Black Thunder Mining, Coal Creek Mining, and Daystar Coal (owned by George Chris Waugh)
- The New West Virginia Mining Co. (owned by Brandy M. Horvath)
- C&D Mining; Murriel Don Coal Co.; and B&C Coal (owned by Rowland Goble and Charles A. Ratliff)
- R&D Coal (owned by David S. Himmelberger)
- Rio Group (owned by Richard H. Abraham)
From bottom to top, the amount in outstanding fines ranged from nearly $1 million (with unpaid fines from as far back as 2003) to more than $4 million (with fines from as long ago as 2007).
Massey Energy & Mining Disasters
In two of the disasters listed earlier, the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion that killed 29 and the Aracoma Mine fire that killed two, the same company—Massey Energy—was involved. Massey Energy used to be unionized, but by the 1990s these unions had been broken up. In short order, the miners started having to work 12-hour shifts.
In 2000, Don Blankenship took over as CEO, and matters did not improve. Before the Aracoma fire in 2006, there were roughly 90 unaddressed safety violations, which if they had been addressed, would have prevented the fire. By 2009, Massey Energy had "more than twice the national rate" of injuries. At the time of the 2010 explosion (which had been preceded by hundreds of violations at that site), this company still owned 35 active underground coal mines. Because of the explosion, Don Blankenship would go on to be convicted of criminal conspiracy to violate safety standards. He was fined $250,000 and served just 1 year in prison.
Companies like these illustrate a pattern that far too many mining company owners get away with, that of accruing violations but simply challenging them, such that they don't pay them until years down the road. Meanwhile, those mines still stay open, they still retain ownership of those mines, and they even open up additional mines, making all this revenue while refusing to pay up. Worse, they may not even address the violations behind those fines.
Miners Deserve a Safe Work Environment
Unfortunately, companies like those listed above expose the limitations of agencies like the MSHA, as their power to enforce safety standards isn't impressive. The reality is that miner safety largely depends on mining companies choosing to act responsibly, though they too often prize productivity over miners' well-being and even lives. When mining companies are negligent, it can take public scrutiny (one of the owners started paying up after the NPR article), or lawsuits from wronged workers and their families to force companies to make the changes they need to. When mining companies provide supervisors, managers, and workers with the training, equipment, and prompt responses to citations that they are owed, then miners and their families can be spared the grief of preventable injuries and fatal accidents.