Working Conditions in the Coal Mines

The purpose of this blog is to take a deeper look into the harsh working conditions of coal miners, more specifically in West Virginia during the 1800’s. One of the earlier blogs took a broad look at industrialization as a whole and briefly touched on the occupational hazards of working in the coal mines. This blog will hope to provide additional insight into the specific reasons why this environment changed and as well as how it was fixed, along with its lasting impact on the laborers. On the surface, basic economic, social and political factors created an environment that served as unfavorable for these people. However, this is a shallow observation and in order to gain insight into the environment, we have to dig much deeper, more specifically into the mindsets and cultural changes surrounding the coal mining environment. A journalist for the New York Journal stated in a newspaper that “An ordinary coaldigger can mine from two and one-half to three tons of coal per day, and with thousands of the men the advance will be about 30 cents per day.” (New York Journal, 1897)

Exposition of Coal Mining

From the 18th century until the mid 20th century, coal was the primary source of energy for industry and transportation. Originally, anthracite coal was the main coal source for fuel in cities. However, over time bituminous coal became the main source of fuel for locomotives and steam engines in the 1800’s. As the demand for coal as a primary source of fuel for industry, businesses and corporations began to commercially mine coal. Additionally, skilled labor was of high demand but along with it came a slew of problems. However, even though skilled labor was desired, the wage at which they would work at would not be ideal.

Aside from the economic reasons for the environment surrounding the coal miners, there are cultural implications as well. Throughout the history of the United States, men have been expected to assume the role of the  patriarch. Working in such hazardous and life threatening conditions come with a sense of pride and respect for the miners. Acquiescing to cultural tendencies in terms of the coal miners, resulted in a need to work in these conditions and provide for their families. This is part of the reason why the environment went untouched for so long, as the hard labor and treacherous landscape was a part of the cultural identity associated with working as a coal miner. this next paragraph will provide further details on the specific risks assumed by these men.

Coal Miners – Bain News Service (1910)

Hazards of the Workplace

Working in coal mines during the 19th century was extremely treacherous and full of hardships. Coal miners would have to, in some cases, trek miles down dark and cramped mine shafts to get to where the coal was being mined. Workers would spend 10 hour days hunched over and crawling, without a single opportunity to stand up or stretch. Additionally, the underground mines were hot and damp. The musty coal infested air had the potential hazard of being flammable. This gas, also mixed with methane, had serious health effects associated with it. Some of these effects include numbness, violent headaches, partial deafness, and of course the risk of choking on the thick dust. The most notable health effect associated with the inhalation of the coal dust is known as black lung. Aside from chronic health issues, the risk of injury also of concern while working in the mine shafts. Falling equipment and the collapsing of shafts are common occurrences that make these hazards an obvious concern.

Group of coal miners, Williamson, West Virginia (1935)

Solutions to Hazardous Conditions

One example of an early solution put in place in order to alleviate some of the harsh conditions associated with working in the coal mines included the installation of furnace and air intake system at the bottom of the shaft. The furnace acted in the same manner as a chimney, sucking up the warm air and blowing it out of the top of the system while the air intake system continually brought fresh air into the shaft to replace the warm air.  This was only a minor fix that would not solve the immediate health issues associated with working in the coal mines. Congress would not implement health regulations for another century. In 1947 Congress authorized the creation of federal regulations for mine safety. Five years later, the Federal Coal Mine Safety Act was enacted and provided the need for annual inspections. Years later the Coal Act of 1969 required additional inspections for coal mines as well as the enforcement of penalties for violating safety protocol. From this, stricter safety standards were created and also led to monetary compensation for miners diagnosed with black lung from years of prolonged exposure.

Although steps have been taken in order to alleviate the adverse health effects and risk associated with coal mining, there are still issues and hazards in today’s society that have not changed. Most notably (although not specifically coal mining), miners in Chile were trapped a half mile down in a mine shaft for a total of 69 days.  Although the environment and mentality surrounding coal mining and the hazards associated with those responsible for the mining of it has been altered, the risks are still very apparent and still pose threats to those working in these mines. These risks will always be prevalent, but knowing the history of how dangerous this line of work is can help to prevent future incidents of this magnitude.


  • New York Journal. Army Returns to Work. New York Journal (1896). Newspaper (December 8th, 2017)
  • Bain News Service. Coal miners. Library of Congress (1910). Image (December 8th, 2017)
  • Shahn, Ben. Group of coal miners, Williamson, West Virginia. Library of Congress (1935). Image (December 8th, 2017)
  • Mine Safety and Health Administration, History of Mine Safety and Health Legislation. United State Department of Labor. Website (December 8th, 2017)
  • Stover, Gracie. Coal Mining, The Early DaysWest Virginia Genealogy Project. Website (December 8th, 2017)

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