When you think about it historically, the use of coal dates all the way back to our earliest ancestors – “the cavemen” – who used coal for heat. Since then, coal has been used in a number of ways all over the world. Though commercial coal mines didn’t begin operating in the U.S. until the 1740s, by the late 1800s the coal use expanded vastly.
With the expansion, coal miners occupied tens of thousands of American jobs. It was these workers who mined the coal used in making steel for ships, tanks, and weapons during WWI and WWII. The mining industry and its prominence in the U.S. not only allowed for the creation of jobs, it also brought long-term employment opportunities for Americans – leading to economic growth and stability for many states, and for the U.S. as a whole.
Why Mining Has Been So Important to the United States
Ever since it was first discovered in the United States near Richmond, Virginia in 1699, all the way to the present day, where coal is now used to fuel electric power plants, the importance of mining in America holds strong.
The United States has the largest estimated recoverable reserves and, second to China, produces and consumes the most coal globally. Despite the surge in using natural gas and solar energy in the past few years, coal continues to be a significant source of energy in the United States today. For a long part of its history, the U.S. has relied on coal and other precious minerals (and thus on miners) in order to run. And we must not forget that our access to minerals like coal relies heavily on the skill and commitment of miners who risk not only their health, but also – sometimes – their lives, for the job.
What Is National Miners Day?
In 2009, Congress proclaimed that the 6th of December would be recognized as National Miners Day. This date also commemorates the deadliest industrial mine accident in American history, when in 1907, 358 miners died in a mine explosion in Monongah, WV.
As such, Miners Day became a day we remember and honor all of the miners who dedicate themselves, both physically and mentally, to a very dangerous line of work. This line of work often includes countless hours toiling away in dark spaces, covered in and inhaling dust and soot – day after day. Today, there are more than 350,000 miners who extract diverse minerals from the earth. Though the work of miners is often overlooked, the efforts of their labor constantly surround us, and it’s important to celebrate them, as well as support them as they battle work-related health issues long after their job has ended.
What Are the Long-Term Health Effects of Mining?
Mining is commonly accepted as a hazardous occupation due to the high number of fatal occupational injuries that occur in the industry – and there are many other dangers beyond explosions and collapsing tunnels that these workers encounter from their work. In some cases, these health issues can be the direct result of the sought-after earthen mineral itself.
Because it was once considered a “miracle mineral,” asbestos mines were prominent throughout North America. Naturally-occurring asbestos is abundant in nature, and the mineral was considered to be extremely useful in manufacturing due to its natural strength and strong resistance to heat and fire. Shortly after Canada started mining for the then-considered precious mineral, asbestos mining made its way to the U.S. just before the turn of the 20th century.
What wasn’t so well-known at that time, were the associated health dangers one faced in asbestos mining. When asbestos is disturbed – as it is in the process of mining – microscopic asbestos fibers can become airborne and workers can breathe them into their lungs. When an asbestos fiber gets lodged in a person’s pleura – or the thin lining of the lung and other organs – the result can be fatal illness, or what we now know to be the lethal cancer, mesothelioma.
Mesothelioma Remains a Major Concern for Miners
Occupational exposure to asbestos has been documented in 70-80% of those affected. In addition, it is now recognized that even trivial exposure to asbestos can cause mesothelioma, so the risk for miners, who have a significantly higher exposure rate to asbestos, is even greater. Further, mesothelioma has a long latency period of 20-50 years, so though miners have a greater risk for the disease, it’s also possible that they don’t show symptoms for decades.
In 1999, there were 2500 deaths from mesothelioma in the U.S., and given the long latency period of the disease, it’s expected that cases will continue to present themselves for many years to come. Although the U.S. has restricted mining that increases exposure risk to asbestos, it has only been about 40 years since the peak of its mining in 1973. What this means is that many miners may suffer yet from the aftereffects of their hard labor.
Through the celebration of National Miners Day, we recognize the importance of miners to our nation’s strength and economy, both past and present. Not only have they served our country in dangerous working conditions so that our lives may be enriched, they continue to prove their resilience by fighting mining-related diseases, and for that, we honor them.