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Chapter 8 - Coal-Mine Accidents

THE so-called "public," that is, the people who do not work in coal-mines, have the impression that, next to working in an ammunition or powder factory, there is no more dangerous calling than that of the coal-miner. And the public is right. At irregular intervals the whole world is shocked by the reports of mine explosions which have cost from 100 to 1,000 workers their lives. Such mine catastrophes are so common that explosions costing less than 100 lives attract little notice.

And still, fewer coal-miners lose their lives through mine explosions than from other causes.

We will here publish a number of tables pertaining to coal-mine accidents, not in order to gloat over harrowing details, but because these tables are an official indictment, by the U. S. government, against private ownership and control of the coal-mines, against the capitalist class in general, and against the present ruthless exploitation of practically defenseless workers in the coal-mining industry for the sake of profit. After reading these tables you will agree with us that every dollar made out of the hide of the coal-miners is stained with blood. It is customary for the mine owners and officials to blame all accidents on the "carelessness," "neglect," or the "ignorance" of the mine workers, but if such subterfuge is too raw to pass muster before public opinion, they blame it on their "God" or "Providence." However, experience has proven that where strict rules have been adopted and enforced, "carelessness, neglect and ignorance" disappear as if by magic and the death-dealing God or Providence keeps out of the mine. This only goes to show that if the rules and regulations for coal mining were made by honest men with-out regard for immediate profit, and if they were rigidly en-forced, mine accidents could be brought down to the same level as in the most favorable occupations.

At present the coal barons of the U. S. alone sacrifice about 2,000 lives every year, in order to make immediate profit. The accidents that are not fatal run into tens of thousands. The coal barons exact a greater toll of human life every year, in order to satisfy their greed, than the total number of dead and wounded in many of the famous battles of history. The coal barons are also the railroad barons, and in the latter capacity they exact a toll of 6 to 10 thousand lives every year while the injured total about 50 thousand yearly.

But it is not only that about 2,000 men lose their lives every year in mine accidents, but behind the 800,000 coal-mine workers of this country comes straggling a haggard, ragged, dirty, poverty-stricken horde of scores of thousands of desperate miners' widows and half-wild miners' children who are thus thrown upon a madly struggling world to shift for themselves, without a provider, without a protector.

When the workers themselves take charge of the coal-mines through their unions, they will, first of all, make coal-mining as safe an occupation as hoeing the garden. It can be done, and there is no reason why it should not be done.

Classification of Fatal Accidents in Coal-Mines

(U. S. Statistics)

           Classification of Causes Number Killed
      1919 1920
  Falls of roof or face   1,015 1,000
  Haulage   355 358
  Explosions of gas and coal dust   176 142
  Explosives   197 110
  Electricity   65 68
  Miscellaneous (underground)   122 91
SHAFT   48 50
  Haulage   83 67
  Machinery   20 20
  Miscellaneous (surface)          65       82
       Total   2,146 1,983

For the sake of comparison we may mention that the number killed under the same circumstances in 1912 was 2,360 and in 1913 2,785.

Some Gruesome Coal-Mine Disasters in European Countries


Number Killed


Albion, Gr. Britain


Camphausen, Germany

1906— Courrieres, France 1,099
1908— Radbold, Germany 360

West Stanley, Gr. Britain


Pretoria, Gr. Britain


Universal, Gr. Britain


Explosion Disasters in American Coal-Mines in Each of Which the Number of Killed Men Exceeds 100

Year and Date

Number Killed


1839- 3-18—Black Heath, Va. (first on record)


1884- 3-13—Pocahontas, W. Va.

  1891- 1-27—Mammoth, [Pa.] 109

1891- 2-21—Springhill Mines, Nova Scotia


1900- 5- 1—Scofield, Utah


1902- 5-19—Coal Creek, Fraterville, Tenn.


1902- 5-22—Fernie, B. C.


1902- 7-10—Rolling Mill Mine, Johnston, Pa.

  1903- 6-30—Hanna, Wyo. 169
  1904- 1-25—Harwich, Pa. 178

1905- 2-20—Virginia City, Okla.


1907-12- 6—Monongahela, W. Va.


1907-12-18—Darr, Pa.


1908-11-28—Marianna, Pa.


1911- 4- 3—Banner Mine, Ala.


1913-10-22—Dawson, N. Mex.


1914- 4-28—Eccles, W. Va.


1914- 6-19—Hillcrest, Alberta


1915- 3- 2—Layland, W. Va.


Detailed Account of Fatal "Accidents" in 1919 and 1920

The following detailed table of fatal coal-mine accidents may at first glance appear both ghastly and uninteresting, but a closer study will reveal to the reader that in this table the tragedy of the coal-miner's life is passing in review before his eyes as on a film. Maybe after reading these figures he or she will be more apt to stand up for the miner's rights. The table may also serve to give the miner himself a better general view of the dangers of the mine. It may some day be the direct cause of saving his life, by having called attention to the different kinds of dangers. It will also be helpful to the miner in formulating the details of his demands for increased safety in the mines.

Number of Killed in Coal-Mines in the United States During the 11 Months Ending Nov. 30 in the Years of 1919 and 1920 Respectively



      1919 1920

1. Falls of Roof (Coal. Rock, Etc.)

      (a) At working face 607 504


In room or chamber 107 188
  (c) On road, entry or gangway 152 167


On slope 11 10

2. Falls of Face or Pillar Coal

  (a) At working face 116 104
  (b) On road, entry or gangway 22 27

3. Mine Cars and Locomotives



Switching and spragging 10 7
  (b) Coupling cars 4 11


Falling from trips 17 28
  (d) Run over by car or motor 139 137

Caught between car and rib

100 89


Caught between car and roof while riding 22 15

Runaway car or trip

37 33
  (h) Miscellaneous 26 33

4. Gas Explosions and Burning Gas



Due to open light 63 59
  (b) Due to defective safety lamps 22 7


Due to electric arc 19 10
  (d) Due to shot 6 11
  (e) Due to explosions of powder 2 11
  (f) Miscellaneous 28 18

5. Coal Dust Explosions (including gas and dust combined)

  (a) Due to open light 22 3
  (b) Due to defective safety lamps .... ....
  (c) Due to electric arc .... ....
  (d) Due to shot 6 11
  (e) Due to explosions of powder 2 11


Miscellaneous 28 18

6. Explosives

  (a) Transportation 96 5
  (b) Charging 14 6


Suffocation 3 4
  (d) Drilling into old holes .... 3
  (e) Striking in loose rock or coal .... ....


Thawing .... ....


Caps, detonators, etc.

3 4
  (h) Unguarded shots 2 2
  (i) Returned too soon 5 8
  (j) Premature shot 49 47
  (k) Sparks from match, lamp or candle 7 7
  (l) Delayed blast 2 9
  (m) Shot breaking through rib or pillar 6 1


Miscellaneous 10 14

7. Suffocation from Mine Gases

11 16

8. Electricity


Direct contact with trolley wire

37 26
  (b) Bar or tool striking trolley wire 2 3
  (c) Contact with mining machine 4 11
  (d) Contact with machine wire 12 9
  (e) Contact with haulage motor 2 3
  (f) Miscellaneous 8 16
9. Animals 2 5
10. Mining Machines (other than 8 c) 25 36

11. Mine Fires (burned, suffocated, etc.)

22 1

12. Other Causes



Fall of person 4 2
  (b) Machinery (other than 10) 3 2
  (c) Rush of coal or gob 14 7
  (d) Falling timber 20 7
  (e) Suffocation in chutes 3 5

Hand tools, axes, bars, etc.

.... ....
  (g) Nails, splinters 1 ....
  (h) Miscellaneous       18      10


13. Falling Down Shafts or Slopes


14. Objects Falling Down Shaft or Slope 6 8

15. Cage, Skip or Bucket

  (a) Runway 8 7
  (b) Riding with rock or coal 1


  (c) Riding with timber or tools 2 ....
  (d) Struck by 4 4
  (e) Miscellaneous 5 2

16. Other Causes

  (a) Overwinding .... ....
  (b) Breaking of cables .... ....
  (c) Miscellaneous      2       4


17. Mine Cars and Mine Locomotives 64 17
18. Electricity 10 17
19. Machinery 20 20
20. Boiler Explosions or Bursting Steam Pipes 5 4
21. Railway Cars and Locomotives 19 20

22. Other Causes

  (a) Explosives 1 12
  (b) Fall of person 15 12
  (c) Falling objects (derricks, booms) 7 7
  (d) Suffocation in chute, bin or culm 3 5
  (e) Falls of slides of rock or coal 10 5
  (f) Steam shovels 1 ....
  (g) Hand tools 1 ....
  (h) Miscellaneous 12 20
  _____ _____
  Grand Total 2,146 1,983

Some of these "accidents" may be due to the defective mentality of the workers, but most of them are directly traceable to the psychology of the profit-mongers. Accidents credited to carelessness, neglect and ignorance of the workers should be "credited" to the profit-monger. They have no business sending inexperienced or defective or ignorant men down in dangerous places. To do is downright murder. Coal-miners should be subjected to the now usual mental tests to ascertain the power of their senses, their quickness of perception, their capacity of judgment, etc. If they pass that examination, they should then be sent to a mining school at public expense to learn the theoretical part of mining in a place where nobody can get hurt, instead of experimenting with death in the dark bowels of the earth. That is what we will do when we, the organized workers, take charge of the mines. This will reduce to a minimum the accidents now charged to "carelessness," etc. But the coal capitalists, like all other capitalists, are intent on doubling, trebling or quadrupling their wealth every 20 years or so, and to accomplish that, they are willing to sacrifice 2,000 miners a year and cripple other thousands, at the same time leaving tens of thousands of women and children unprovided for every year. How long shall we put up with it?

Old and experienced miners are discharged when they begin to organize and ignorant and inexperienced foreigners, some-times half-savage, are sent down in the mines, a danger to themselves and to others. Who is then the guilty party, the gaping peasant boy from the Balkans, the half-wild Mexican, or the wily millionaire who hired them?

The Babel of tongues spoken in the mines is just as dangerous there as it is on board the ship where inexperienced paint-scrubbers of a dozen nationalities, called seamen, understand neither one another nor their officers. But who is at fault? The poor fellow who takes any kind of job, in order to get a morsel to eat, or the fellow who hires him because he can get him cheaper than the experienced man?

Instead of striving to get an intelligent and enlightened crew in the mine the operator trafficks in the ignorance and the poverty of his slaves. The more ignorant they are, the less they are able to control illegalities in the operation of the mine, the less they are able to know their rights and to defend them, and the poorer they are, the greater chances they will take in order to live and get bread for their families.

The whole mode of operation should be revolutionized. Each and every cause of accident enumerated above could be obviated. This is not the place, however, to enter into the technical details. We will only say that if we were able to put overalls on the operators and the technical help and the managers and the government officials concerned in mining, and send them down to work daily in the mine, together with their sons, they would very soon revolutionize the mode of operation, so as to reduce the number of accidents to practically nothing.

But the workers will in due time solve these questions of safety to their own satisfaction. When it is no longer a question of digging coal for profit but for the satisfying of a public need, coal-mining will be made as safe an occupation as any other.

If human life were valued more and profit less, there would be no falling roofs, for there would be no defective timbering. There would be no haulage accidents, for there would be more manways, non-haulage roads, greater clearance on one side of haulage ways, shelter holes at regular intervals. There would be no electrocutions, for the trolley and feed wires would be properly guarded. There would also be better brakes and better blocking. And there would be systematic rules for signals, etc.

The accidents in handling explosives could all be avoided if the men handling them were not driven by the unseen power of poverty and fear of discharge for slowness, to disregard certain details which may cost them their lives. Further, if only permissible explosives are supplied, and if more energy and genius were expended on making the explosives safe, there would be still less chance of mishap. But crowding the mine with ignorant and inexperienced men who cannot talk to one another—all for the sake of profit—will make the most "permissible" explosive as dangerous as naked T N T.

Every fire-damp explosion or coal-dust explosion is a crime. There never yet was an explosion in a coal-mine that was an accident.

The inflammable gas, chiefly methane (CH4) or marshgas is found in nearly all coal-mines, except the shallow ones. This is the deadly fire-damp. If it is allowed to accumulate anywhere in the mine, and if it happens to be ignited by a flame or a spark, there is an explosion. But there is absolutely no excuse for allowing such accumulations of the inflammable gas to take place. When they do take place, it is because the operator is seeking to get rich quick by saving money on ventilation and inspection.

The same applies to coal-dust explosions. There are dozens of well-known methods of decreasing the rate of accumulation of coal-dust, f. i. by having tight cars and never loading the cars higher than the side boards. There are numerous methods of making the dust harmless by wetting it or mixing it with non-inflammable materials. There are also methods of lessening the danger of ignition by the use of safety lamps, permissible ex-plosives and barriers. If all these known methods were lived up to by the operators, and if only properly trained and instructed workers were sent down in the mines, the "accidents" would stop as if by magic.

But the fatalities will continue to hover around the 2,000 mark until the workers take matters into their own hands and run the mines themselves through their union. For where is the worker who would willingly and knowingly neglect to take steps to save his own life, as well as the lives of his fellows, if only given a semblance of a fair chance? But as long as the mines continue to be operated for profit they will remain death-traps.

On to Chapter 9

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