Learn about Life in the 1920s

The Human Cost of Mining Coal in the U.S.

TWICE IN A DECADE have coal-miners of Dawson, New Mexico, been trapt and entombed by mine explosions which snuffed out a total of 383 lives. And in both instances the mines were owned by the same corporation. In ten years, declares the New York Evening Post, "we have killed approximately 24,000 miners." Quite properly, then, the Denver Rocky Mountain News asks: "Are we utilizing everything that science can devise to make mines safe? Or do we hold human life cheaper than the cost of proper precautions that might cost a few cents more per ton to mine the coal?" In the latest disaster at Mine No. 1 of the Phelps-Dodge Corporation, only two miners out of 122 entombed Were saved. These had wrapt wet garments about their faces, and stretched full length in the shaft until the fatal gases cleared. Some of the others were burned almost beyond recognition.

On the same day, by a strange coincidence, an explosion occurred in Mine No. 4 of the Canadian Collieries, at Cumberland, B. C., in which 33 men lost their lives. Little hope is held out for the twenty or more who remain entrapt, say Associated Press dispatches. The origin of the explosion, according to a telegram from the company, is unknown. Hence the query by The Rocky Mountain News, which is published less than three hundred miles from the New Mexico tragedy. Continues this paper:

"True, the Federal and the State Governments have taken in hand the question of mine safety, and experienced men are employed at strategical points as mine rescuers. Still the question remains of whether everything is being done that can be done to make coal-mines safe.

"That familiarity breeds contempt for danger is true in the mine among certain classes of employees, but all the same it is the first duty of owners of properties to do everything possible to save the innocent from the criminally careless and to use precaution against conditions known to exist."

The blame for the New Mexican disaster may never be fixt, since the two survivors are at a loss to account for the explosion. The Washington Star suggests that a breach of the mine regulations was responsible. In reply to a telegram, the Phelps-Dodge Corporation says, "our mines were equipped with every safety device known to the industry and we had spent a great deal of money in the last few years in trying to avoid the possibility of an explosion of the nature of that which took place." Other statements from the corporation, according to the Pittsburgh Leader, say the mine was non-gaseous and that it was well sprinkled. "But there must have been dangerous quantities of coal-dust that were not well sprinkled, or equally menacing volumes of gas against which adequate protection had not been taken," maintains this paper. "If dry coal-dust or escaping gas had not been in the shaft in dangerous volumes there would have been no explosion, how-ever careless the miner who is now sought and who, if found at all, will be found among the sacrificed." As we are informed by the editor of The Coal Age (New York)-—

"Accidents like that at Dawson serve to make the coal industry doubt whether sprinkling is a satisfactory means of avoiding a dust explosion. At no mines, perhaps, were more elaborate precautions taken than at those of the Phelps-Dodge Corporation. Rooms and roadways were piped and industriously sprayed. All loose coal in rooms was removed before shots were fired. The cars were of a type that did not leak dust. Shots were loaded by men specifically employed for that purpose. No one other than these men had explosives in their possession. The shots were fired electrically, when every man was out of the mine. A daily test was made of the safety of the workings. It was indeed an irony that the mine should blow up when men were inside.

"Probably the cause of this accident, as of that ten years ago, was a man who, desirous of loading a little more coal than had been brought down for him, used 'bootlegged' or stolen powder and fired a shot in coal that had not been undercut.

"The failure to render this mine safe emphasizes the need for dusting mines with powdered rock. Below a wetted surface the coal-dust may be perfectly dry. Stone dusting and stone-dust barriers seem to be the only solution."

When we turn to other experts for comment as to the preventability of such accidents, conditions of labor, and so forth, we find, according to Ellis Searles, editor of The United Mine Work-ers' Journal (Indianapolis), that—

"Human life appears to be the cheapest thing that is involved in coal-mining in New Mexico and British Columbia, and that fact undoubtedly has much to do with the frequency of disasters in the mines of those fields. Coal-miners on Vancouver Island, and those in practically all of New Mexico, are not permitted to organize or join the miners' union. They have no voice in regard to their wages or working conditions. If they are not willing to work in unsafe mines, they can quit. That's the policy that prevails. If these men were allowed to organize they could then work as an organization for better conditions, the enactment of safety laws and a higher regard for human life.

"Large numbers of Chinese are employed in Vancouver mines because they work for little or nothing. What can be expected in the way of safety conditions under such circumstances? And what can be expected also in those New Mexico mines where cheap labor from across the Mexican Border comes in? American standards of employment, American standards of safety, and American conditions of labor would go far toward reducing the number of such disasters and saving human lives."

From no less an authority than H. Foster Bain, Director of the United States Bureau of Mines, we learn that the Dawson mine "is known to have been most carefully equipped." Says Mr. Bain in reply to a telegram:


"A question naturally arises as to whether our modern methods of mining are defective or whether these accidents are to be classed with those which from time to time occur even on the best equipped and operated railroads, due to the fact that not every employee will be careful and alert every minute of the time he is on active duty.

"For more than ten years the Bureau of Mines has studied the causes and means of prevention of mine explosions. Near Pittsburgh an experimental mine, the only one in the world, is maintained to develop and to test under actual working conditions methods of preventing and of limiting mine explosions. The Bureau's Chief Mining Engineer, George B. Rice, and his assistants, have learned so much about the matter that they can cause and prevent explosions at will. They can blow up part of a mine and kill the explosion wave before it crosses a predetermined deadline. Moreover, they have shown on an actual working scale that even if an explosion occurs in a coal mine, there is no reason why it should extend throughout the workings, killing men far and wide. The methods are known, the mine is there to be used in demonstrating to any 'doubting Thomas,' and the results have already been widely accepted by operators.

"The fact that the extent of an explosion can be limited, was shown recently at the Dolomite mine in Alabama, where the preventive measures taken in advance killed the explosive wave within a short distance of its point of origin. If this had not been done the death list 91 would have been many times longer than it was.

"It will never be possible to prevent, entirely, accidents in mines, any more than on the streets of the cities, but in both places the number of accidents may be reduced two-thirds by care on the part of the individual."

The Latest available figures in The International Labour Review, of London, indicate that coal-mining is much safer in the United Kingdom than in the United States:

Source: The Literary Digest for February 24, 1923