| Written by Michal Wozniakowski-Zehenter
No video selected
Select a video type in the sidebar.
Before the advent of machines, drills, and explosives, mining was primarily a manual endeavour for the majority of human history. The primitive tools used by early miners included picks, shovels, and hammers, requiring tremendous strength and endurance on their part. As miners chipped away at hard rock or sifted through sediments for long hours, physical tolls were high. The deeper they went, the greater the hazards. Miners encountered narrow tunnels and shafts, often lacking adequate support structures. As well as being difficult to navigate, these claustrophobic spaces were also prone to cave-ins, which could trap them underground.
In addition to the intense labour, miners faced oppressive conditions underground, which resulted in significant health risks. Dehydration, exhaustion, and physical injuries, such as broken bones or crushed limbs, were not uncommon. As a result, they suffer chronic health conditions or disabilities. Even nature conspired against them. Many people encountered severe challenges as a result of extreme heat or cold, making work even more strenuous. In addition to the dangers of the job, miners often worked in pitch-black conditions, illuminated only by the faint glow of their lamps. The isolation from the outside world had profound psychological effects.
Although today's miners have access to advanced protective equipment, including special clothing and respirators, their predecessors were not so lucky. Throughout the centuries, worker safety has evolved slowly, and miners have been exposed to numerous dangers throughout history.
It was common for helmets to start as simple leather caps or cloth hats. While they provided some protection against minor knocks or debris, they were insufficient to withstand larger rockfalls or significant impacts. As a significant advance, metal-reinforced helmets also had their shortcomings, including their comfort and effectiveness. To protect against sharp rocks and provide some support in rugged terrains, miners typically wore rugged and durable clothing. Boots were heavy-duty, designed to withstand rough conditions. The early 19th century saw the development of safety lamps, which reduced the risk of igniting flammable gases in mines. They emitted soot and could easily ignite methane pockets. A miner had little defence against inhaling harmful clouds of dust and gases prior to respirators. A testament to this deficiency is the prevalence of respiratory diseases among miners during this era. For a long time, miners' hearing was worn out due to constant rock chipping, cart rumbling, and explosive use. Yet, ear protection was not even considered for a long time. The understanding of noise-induced hearing loss took only years to mature before efforts were made to mitigate it. As experienced miners often developed their own set of best practices based on personal experience rather than systematic research and testing, preventable accidents often occurred because of the lack of a cohesive approach to safety.
Retrospectively, it appears that safety measures in the past were inadequate. But they were a reflection of the times, an era when productivity and progress were more important than worker safety. The impetus to develop better protective measures increased as mining progressed and worker rights and safety became increasingly important.
Despite technological advances and improved knowledge, chest respiratory disease has long been a problem in the mining industry. Miners of the past unknowingly exposed themselves to harmful gases and particulates that eventually led to debilitating health problems. When this dust settles in the lungs, it causes inflammation and, eventually, scarring (fibrosis). The result was a progressive respiratory decline that can be fatal in severe cases. Because many miners did not notice the damage until it was too late, symptoms often did not appear until a decade or even longer after exposure. In a similar way to coal dust, silica dust created by hard rock mining poses a serious health threat. As a result of advanced cases, respiratory failure was the result of coughing, shortness of breath, and chest pain. A common occurrence of silicosis was known as "miner's phthisis" or "grinder's asthma" in certain mining regions. There were other hazards as well. Mines, especially those with poor ventilation, bred hazardous gases. Methane was a highly flammable gas that was known for causing explosions in mines. Despite having a characteristic rotten egg odor, hydrogen sulfide is toxic even in low concentrations. Miners once used canaries as early warning systems for hazardous gases, especially carbon monoxide, as these birds can be more sensitive to such gases than humans. Miners were told to evacuate if a canary showed signs of distress or died, signalling an unsafe atmosphere. Mining and respiratory diseases became unavoidable, and miners and their communities began to advocate for safer working conditions. It was a slow and arduous process, with mining companies often resisting changes that would impact productivity. In the end, reforms were achieved by the combination of medical evidence, public opinion, and worker demands.
While falling rocks, cave-ins, and physical exhaustion were immediate and evident safety topics in mining of the past, some of the most lethal threats were those they couldn't see. Invisible gases, lurking in the shadows of tunnels and shafts, were responsible for numerous tragedies and fatalities in historical mining operations.
In mining accidents, methane was a major factor. It is an odorless gas released during coal extraction that accumulates in pockets in mines and when mixed with air becomes highly explosive when mixed with air. In addition to open flames from miners' lamps and sparks from tools, deadly explosions can also be caused by sparks from tools. When incomplete combustion occurs, carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless gas, is produced as the "silent killer." This gas can be elevated by explosions, fires, or even simply using lamps in oxygen-deprived environments. When inhaled, carbon monoxide binds to red blood cells 200 times more strongly than oxygen, thereby denying oxygen to tissues and organs. This toxic gas is often recognized by its rotten egg smell and can be found in mining environments, particularly in sulfur-rich areas. High concentrations could cause eye irritation and lung damage, and exposure could be deadly. While its distinct odor served as a warning, the gas could deaden the sense of smell, leaving miners unaware of its presence when very high amounts were present.
A canary was one method miners used to identify the presence of these gases when they had no modern gas detection instruments. Some mines employed "firemen" or "fire bosses" who, each morning, checked for methane with a safety lamp before the workforce entered the mines. Their task was risky, and their observations were not always comprehensive or accurate. Having sufficient airflow reduced the risks of explosions and gas poisoning by diluted and ejected harmful gases. Early mines lacked effective ventilation systems, relying on rudimentary methods such as opening additional shafts or using fans as ventilation systems. In order to ensure miner safety, more sophisticated and effective ventilation techniques were developed as mining engineering progressed.
Underground mining is a dark and disorienting place by nature, a world in which there is no light. Miners have had a primary concern throughout history ensuring adequate lighting. The tools and methods they were using, however, were far from perfect, introducing as many risks as they mitigated. Simple candles were often used as light in the early days of mining. A miner's area was only illuminated by the lamp's limited brightness. Additionally, open flames could ignite flammable gases in a mine, which could cause explosions. Oil lamps became increasingly popular as mining evolved. They provided a brighter and more durable flame than candles because they were fueled with whale oil, olive oil, or later, kerosene. Fires could be caused by oil spills or open flames in mines. Sir Humphry Davy and George Stephenson independently developed safety lamps in the early 19th century, realizing that open flames could cause fires. Mesh screens on these lamps dispersed heat and prevented methane pockets from igniting, reducing explosion risks significantly.
A significant advance in mine lighting occurred with the advent of electricity. By the mid-19th and early-20th centuries, battery-powered lamps and wired electric lamps had begun to appear. They were brighter, safer, and more reliable than their predecessors. As a result of the initial cost, infrastructure requirements, and unfamiliarity with the technology, adoption was slow. In addition to feeling claustrophobic, anxious, and disoriented, working in near total darkness can lead to a sense of isolation, as miners were never sure what lurked just beyond their feeble lights. As a result of poor lighting, miners were less efficient. In dim light, it was difficult to identify minerals or ores, resulting in mistakes and lower productivity.
As the death toll mounted and tales of mining tragedies became commonplace, the call for reform grew louder. Society could no longer ignore the harsh realities faced by miners. The early seeds of change were sown by brave individuals, grassroots movements, and scientific discoveries that started challenging the status quo of the mining industry.
It was at this time that miners and their families began organizing and voicing their grievances as they suffered from unsafe working conditions. Throughout many regions, especially in mining-dominated areas, workers formed unions in order to secure better wages, shorter working hours, and safer working conditions. Unions such as these were instrumental in bringing workers' plights to the public's attention and demanding reforms. It was studies which demonstrated the prevalence of diseases such as silicosis and black lung that prompted people to realize that immediate action was necessary. Increasing knowledge of hazardous gases also led to calls for improved ventilation and safer mining practices. Tragic mining accidents, especially those involving large-scale deaths, made headlines as well. Some governments introduced mining regulations because of growing unrest among miners and their advocates. Recognizing the unrest and undeniable evidence of unsafe mining practices, the media played an important role in amplifying their voice. Often, early mining laws focused on a specific aspect, such as ventilation standards, the prohibition of open-flame lamps in certain mines, and miners' minimum age requirements. However, there were significant obstacles in the way of change. Companies that had vested interests in maintaining the status quo frequently resisted reforms due to concerns over decreased productivity, increased costs, and job losses. These oppositions led to conflicts between workers and employers, sometimes leading to strikes and confrontations. Globally, reforms took on different paces and forms. Reforming mining practices was more difficult in some cases and slower in others. As the 20th century dawned, a global consensus arose about the need for safe mining methods (read more about mine safety equipment and mine technology).
The history of mining is not just one of extracting riches from the earth, but also one of human resilience, camaraderie, and the collective pursuit of justice. A boom in mineral and coal demand led to rapid expansion of the mining industry during the Industrial Revolution. However, as mines became deeper and more dangerous, miners faced greater challenges.
There was little job security, gruelling work hours, low wages, and unsafe conditions for most miners. The miners were inspired to resist after watching their colleagues suffer accidents, witnessing families left destitute and experiencing personal hardship. They realized individually they had little power, but together they could influence the situation. Among these organizations were the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) and the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in the UK. They were formed in order to bring miners together, to voice grievances, and to negotiate better terms. During negotiations with mine owners, strikes became a frequent form of protest, particularly as negotiations hit roadblocks. Despite the fact that many of these strikes were peaceful, some became violent. There were many incidents in the US in 1914 that highlighted how far some mine operators and even governments went to suppress these movements, such as the Ludlow Massacre. The labour movement achieved significant success despite the challenges. While labour movements in mining varied widely, their relentless advocacy led to improved safety regulations and workers' rights. While the specifics varied, the story isn't unique to any one country. The demands for dignity and justice were common among miners in Australia, South Africa, and elsewhere. Aside from the mining industry, these labour movements had a broad impact. Additionally, they demonstrated the power of collective action, showing how unity and perseverance can challenge even the most formidable adversaries. In addition, they helped to organize other industries.
How was mining in the past?
Initially, miners dug mining shafts by hand or with stone tools, making the process very long. The pick hammer and fire eventually replaced these primitive tools to speed up tunnel clearance and reach greater depths.
What are the biggest safety concerns in mining?
There are a variety of mining hazards, including but not limited to ground collapse, subsidence, fault reactivation, fissures, mine water rebound, acid mine water drainage, and mine gas emissions.
In the effort to improve mining safety, labour movements have fought relentlessly for better working conditions, fair treatment, and comprehensive safety measures. Through collective bargaining and advocacy, labour movements have succeeded in affecting policy changes that have enhanced the overall safety landscape of the mining industry.
In the past few decades, mining safety has undergone a remarkable transformation due to these combined efforts. It has evolved from a dangerous, high-risk occupation to one where workers' safety is a top priority. While challenges are undoubtedly still looming, the progress made thus far is a testament to the determination and resilience of those involved in the mining industry.
Further advancements in mining safety are crucial in the future (see also our article about mining and digital transformation). In order to create a safer and more sustainable future for its workforce, the mining industry must embrace emerging technologies, refine regulations, and cultivate strong partnerships between all stakeholders.
Dive deeper into one of our core topics: Miner safety