Labor Pains

Hard Labor

Working in the coalmines is hard work. No doubt about it. It’s woven into the fabric of our American history. Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, coal has been used in vast quantities to fuel technology and innovation. Improved operating standards and protocols have allowed mining to become safer and less labor intensive, but it’s still hard work and can be very dangerous. The amount of coal harvested by one miner has more than tripled since 1978 alone.

Two Types of Mining: Surface and Underground

Surface Mining, which includes Mountaintop Removal Mining (MTR), makes up two-thirds of the coal production in the United States. Surface mining doesn’t mean the coal is sitting on the surface of the ground. It’s actually buried 200 feet or less. Giant machines remove the topsoil and layers of rock to reveal the coal. The topsoil and rock removed is known as overburden. In the case of MTR, explosives blast away the topsoil and rock after the land has been deforested. After the coal has been harvested the overburden is put back into the pit and topsoil is added and the area replanted.

 Underground Mining is used when the top of the coal seam is several hundred feet deep or more. Some mines have gone to depths of several thousand feet. In underground mining, miners ride elevators down deep shafts then use machines to dig out and harvest the coal.

Dangerous Work

Historically, mining for coal has been a dangerous endeavor since it first began. In the U.S. alone, 100,000 deaths occurred in the 20th century. Even in the 1940s it wasn’t uncommon to have 1,000 deaths a year. The total number of coal fatalities in the U.S. from 1900 to 2012 was 137,650.

From 2003 to 2014, the state of West Virginia has had the most coal mining fatalities in the U.S. at 123 deaths. Kentucky has had the second most fatalities with 77. Followed by Alabama, which has had 23 deaths. Interestingly, Wyoming, which is the number one coal producing state, only had 7 during that same time period.

Miners face a lot of dangers in the workplace from unsafe facilities and cramped environments. Falling objects, roof collapses, and failed equipment are just a few of the many hazards. In addition, miners have an increased chance of developing respiratory damage through the breathing of high levels of dust and chemicals. Some of the disorders from respiratory damage associated with coal mining include Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Coal Worker’s Pneumoconiosis (CWP or Black Lung), and Progressive Massive Fibrosis (PMF). In addition, hearing loss is also a major health hazard in the coal mining industry from the loud heavy equipment used.

Worth the Risk

Most miners make a good salary and feel the pay outweighs the potential safety and health hazards associated with work. Workers want to maintain a certain lifestyle that their salary affords them. The average salary for U.S. coal miners is $81,462. Comparing the average salary for other industry workers at only $49,200, it’s easy to see which pays more.

  • In Kentucky, the average coal miner makes $70,615
  • Kansas has the highest average pay at $106, 663.
  • West Virginia miners average pay is $84,751

“Mining the Coal.” U.S. Energy Information Association, n.d. 14 Apr 2014

“Former Miner Explains Culture of Mining.” National Public Radio, 2010, 15 Apr 2014

“Mine Safety and Health at a Glance.” Mine Safety and Health Administration/U.S. Department of Labor, 2014, 15 Apr 2014

“Annual Coal Mining Wages by State vs. All Industries.” The National Mining Association, 2013, 15 Apr 2014

“Health Risks Associated with Coal Mining.” Kentucky Environmental Foundation, n.d. 15 Apr 2014



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