Back to the Coal Mines

Aug 202006
Authors: Andy Nicewicz

Like many college students during summer vacation, I had a job.

It wasn’t quite what you would call your typical summer job, however. While many of my friends were scrounging for tips or flipping burgers in some nice air-conditioned building, I was stuck in a dark pit, hundreds of feet below the surface of the earth, all day, and sometimes even all night.

Yes, I was a coal miner.

Before leaving CSU last summer, the typical response I got from people when I told them I was going to work in a coal mine was, “Dude, don’t get black lung,” or, “Dang, I hope you make it back next semester with all your limbs.”

I’m pretty sure they were just joking, but sometimes I’m not so sure. The common conceptions people have about coal mining seem to stem from movies and TV shows where the miners use picks and shovels, where there is barely enough room to stand and where canaries are used to alert the miners of dangerous gasses.

Besides those images, we’ve all heard in the past year about a number of accidents that tragically killed several coal miners. Ultimately, it’s not surprising people view coal mining as an unusual, dangerous profession.

As a matter of fact, coal mining is dangerous, but not as extreme as most people think. It is true that at any moment the roof could collapse or toxic or explosive gas could build up – and that’s just naming a few of many hazards. But new technology and practices have made coal mining safer than ever.

Huge fans and ventilation shafts circulate fresh air throughout the mine and electronic sensors to monitor gas have replaced canaries. Roof support and bolting techniques make any roof collapses highly unlikely. Black lung has largely been eradicated thanks to water trunks that spray down the coal dust.

Even in the event of a disastrous occurrence, all miners are thoroughly trained in evacuation routes, and self-contained self-rescuers (aka SCSRs: a breathing apparatus used if the air underground should become too toxic) are always right at hand. In fact, during my entire three-month employment at the mine, the worst injury suffered was when a miner who had recently received laser eye surgery was squirted in the eyes with soap in the showers and almost blinded (I kid you not).

Besides safety, technology has made coal mining incredibly efficient. At the mine where I worked, 4 million tons of coal is mined every year thanks to new mining techniques that involve machinery and hydraulics instead of mere manpower. At its deepest point, the mine is about 1,500 feet below the surface and over four miles from the portal entrance.

We traverse these relatively large distances by using Dodge pickup trucks (not exactly the cramped spaces you were envisioning, right?) and conveyor belts transport the mined coal to the surface.

Even though the conditions in coal mines have drastically improved since the time of picks and shovels, it’s still not exactly a pleasant job. Working from 6:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., often on weekends and nights, in a sun-deprived pit was not my idea of an ideal summer. By the end of the summer, I was definitely relieved to be leaving and going back to school (first time in my entire life that’s ever happened). Maybe next summer I’ll get a job flipping burgers.

Andy Nicewicz is a senior political science major. His column runs every Monday in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to

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