Appropriately, yesterday I toured the Tour-Ed Mine, a coal mine in Western Pennsylvania. Inside the mine, our tour guide, John, walked us through 100 years of coal mining technique and safety. Unfortunately, not much was done in the way of safety for the workers until it simply became too expensive not to keep them alive. As for technology, as our tour guide, John, put it, “Electricity was a godsend to the coalminer.” Interestingly, 37% of our electricity today is powered by coal.
Also, today, there are sensors built into the [extremely] loud mining equipment that test the air for gasses rather than sending in a fire boss (a man doused in water sent in first with a torch) or canaries for their faster susceptibility to airborne poisons, miners wear hardhats with battery-operated lights built in rather than candles fastened to a canvas hat or later, carbide acetylene torches attached to leather “turtle shell” mine hats. Modern coal mines don’t have much need for the use of explosives, either, which does away with the warning, “Fire in the hole!” called out from relative “safety” around the corner as black powder blasted a hole (around the corner because explosions travel in a straight line).
My favorite parts of the tour were the rope line, patent filed as recently as 1998, consisting of a fire-retardant rope strung through the mine that miners could [hopefully] find and follow to the mine entrance in the event of a blackout. The rope line has little cones on it that indicate by touch which way is “in” and which way is “out” of the mine. Another favorite detail was the way John talked about superstitions in coal miners, even in modern day, as John himself mined coal for more than 20 years. Coal miners save part of their lunch for “later,” when they reach the surface again, and John said he’s never seen a coal miner kill a rat, ever. Rats, to this day, are an early warning system to ground tremors.
As we celebrate the Labor movement today, I thank our nation’s coal miners past and present for their backbreaking work in dark, cold, and incredibly dangerous conditions.
Today I’m reminded that, as far as we have come over the years, there is still so much further to go. Keep striving, America.
~ Jody Brown is the author of Upside Down Kingdom, and is a multi-blogger, poet, and traveler. Her current writing projects, including her daily blog endeavor, #Project365, can be found at JodyBrown.com/writing.