The Real Cost of Coal

Historically, coal mining has been one of the most dangerous of of all human occupations. Today, automation has improved safety to a considerable degree, reducing the hazard level to that of construction, or agriculture.1 Coal mining has also injured the earth, although legislation in the late 20th century compelled the industry to reclaim and rehabilitate sites.

19th-Century Coal Mine

Sketch of two people in a up-sloping mine shaft

In this picture from an 1840s report to the British Parliament, a trousered woman pulls herself and an ore tub up a mine's steep slope, while a man helps by pushing.

In the mid-19th century, all the work was done by hand, and by low-paid workers. In underground mines, men dug the coal with picks and shovels after blasting entries into the veins, called "seams," of the mineral. They filled "ore tubs"—wooden crates with curved, rocker-like bottoms—that women or children pulled away. For this "horse work," as one woman called it, she wore a body harness attached to ropes or chains that extended between her knees to the ore tub. In a low-ceilinged tunnel, she had to crawl on hands and knees, dragging her burden of from 100 to 300 pounds.

She delivered the coal to a vertical shaft, where "pit-brow lassies" hoisted it to the surface, where young "breaker boys" picked out shale and other non-coal rock as the minerals went by on a conveyor belt. Even the boys who escaped more serious maiming, such as crushed hands, arms, or legs, ended up with hunched backs from the bent-over posture during their growing years, giving rise to the miners' saying that such a man "had his boy to carry" for the rest of his life.

Where horses and mules pulled underground ore trams, "trap boys" (and girls) waited alone, sometimes standing in cold water and with no light, by doors between mine sections, their only job to open the door when a tram car came along. Getting caught by a heavily-laden runaway tram could mean losing limbs between the wheels and the track.

The human mine employees worked 12 or more hours a day, six days a week. The four-legged animals, once taken underground, lived their entire lives there.2

For all but a handful of summer days, people went to the mine in the dark, worked in the dark, and returned home in the dark. If the children received any formal education at all, it came from church schools on Sundays.

Miners had to rent their homes from their employer, in a company town built at the mine. They had to buy everything on credit from a company-owned store, including necessary work equipment and supplies of fuses and blasting powder. They bought electricity from the company as well, and received the services of company-paid police and firefighters.3

There was the constant danger of cave-ins that crushed miners, or trapped them underground for slower deaths. Coal could catch fire, producing carbon monoxide gas. The primitive warning system for that odorless, deadly gas was a caged canary; with its high metabolism, a canary would die quickly when carbon monoxide reached it, giving miners a chance to escape to fresh air.

And through it all, everyone who breathed the coal dust floating in the air was developing silicosis from the insoluble mineral. The miners called it simply, and accurately, "black lung."

Exposed Coal Seam in Southeastern Montana

Black layer of rock in a river bank

© 2003 by Donald Hyndman

In 1842, the British Parliament responded to the report of a commission headed by Lord Ashley and passed the Miners and Collieries Act. At the time, this seemed like a major humanitarian gesture because it prohibited women, and children under the age of 13, from working underground.

In the United States, such protection at the national level took nearly a century longer to achieve. Although reformers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries managed to obtain state laws prohibiting employment of children under age 12, large coal companies fought attempts to enact a national law. The first U.S. federal Child Labor Act lasted only four years before being declared unconstitutional in 1916, and the second one lasted only from 1919 to 1922. A campaign for a constitutional amendment failed two years after that, but when jobs for everyone were scarce during the Great Depression, a national law at last stood. Beginning in 1938, it was illegal for products sold across state lines to be mined by children younger than 18.4

The United Mine Workers of America labor union dates from 1890, when a group of smaller unions joined together. Exclusively for coal miners, the union continues today. Organizing was often bloody, when miners demonstrated publicly and were attacked by coal-company police. Miners and their families suffered when the miners called strikes, withdrawing labor—their only asset—from company owners. One of the UMW's early victories was winning the eight-hour work day for coal miners in western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. Following World War II, the union reluctantly agreed to increased automation in coal mines. Although this diminished the number of available mining jobs, it improved safety conditions.

Today's underground miners wear respirators. Coal dust is held down by sprinklers, and by mining machinery equipped with water sprayers. Improved ventilation systems more efficiently circulate fresh air through the mines. Coal companies are required give their employees training in first-aid and safety also.5 In 2001, only forty-two U.S. miners died on the job.

Today there are 130,000 miners in the United States; 3,300 of them are women.6

1. From Commonwealth of Pennsylvania website,

2. Susan Campbell Bartoletti, Growing Up in Coal Country (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996), p. 57.

3. A young adult book that includes descriptions of historic mining practices is Milton Meltzer, Cheap Raw Material: How Our Youngest Workers Are Exploited and Abused (Viking, 1994). In-depth coverage is found in Angela V. John, By the Sweat of Their Brow: Women Workers at Victorian Coal Mines (London: Croom Helm, 1980).

4. Meltzer, Cheap Raw Material, pp. 80, 83-84.

5. Gail Stewart, Coal Miners (Crestwood House, 1988), pp. 42-43.

6. National Mining Association.,

Funded in part by a grant from the Montana Committee for the Humanities.