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Fish on Friday: Will You Die at Work Today?

Will you die at work today? Probably not. For the 120,000 men and women who go down into America’s coal mines every day, well, they just might die. In the last 10 years, 298 coal miners have died in U.S. mines. Forty-seven died last year — four per month, the most since 1995. Except during mining disasters like the six men who remain trapped in the Utah coal mine, coal miners operate not just underground, but hidden from our sight and our consciousness.

Will you die at work today? Probably not.

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For the 120,000 men and women who go down into America’s coal mines every day, well, they just might die. In the last 10 years, 298 coal miners have died in U.S. mines. Forty-seven died last year — four per month, the most since 1995.

Except during mining disasters like the six men who remain trapped in the Utah coal mine, coal miners operate not just underground, but hidden from our sight and our consciousness.

And yet, as much as any profession, every American is utterly dependent on the work of those 120,000 miners. Half the electricity in the U.S. today comes from burning coal. Without coal miners, there’d not only be no lights or refrigerators, there wouldn’t be flat-screen TV or an internet.

Electric utilities burn 20 pounds of coal for every person, every day. And since 1900, 104,621 U.S. miners have died getting that coal out of the ground.

So what’s it really like to work in a coal mine? I’ve been down into the second-deepest hole in the world, and I can tell you, it’s not for the faint of heart.

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For a story in the May 2003 Fast Company, I went down into Anglo-American’s Mponeng gold mine in South Africa. The working face of that mine is 11,800 feet down — you ride an elevator 2 miles into the earth. Under the best circumstances, the elevator ride alone takes 8 minutes.

When the door pulls back, you’re a long way from the real world. And if you doubt the danger, the breathing device slung from your belt, whacking your leg with each step, is a ready reminder. In Mponeng, there’s enough room to stand up, but it’s hot, and dirty, and dark, and the proximity of machines that rip tunnels through solid rock is humbling, to say the least. Looking up is a startling experience — the roof is the underside of two miles of solid rock.

This week, the Chicago Tribune sent a reporter down into a West Virginia coal mine, to get a story on what it’s like today inside a coal mine. The miners start their shift with a prayer; the story comes with a vivid two-minute video inside the tunnels in a routinely operating mine.

Two much more detailed accounts pre-date the Utah accident. The Washington Post’s Pulitzer Prize winning environmental reporter Joby Warrick wrote a long story for the Washington Post magazine in January about spending time in another West Virginia mine: “Below ground, the elevator opens to a world unlike anything on the surface. The first jolt is the unrelenting darkness. Unlike subway tunnels, mine shafts are not wired with lights. The only sources of illumination are the headlights of the mine car and the flashlight glow of batter-powered helmet lanterns.”

And Jeanne Marie Laskas spent days in a Cadiz, Ohio, coal mine for a GQ story called “Underworld,” which she discussed on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” a couple weeks ago. “I found so little whining among the men about the conditions, I was surprised about that,” says Laskas.

Altogether, the stories should give you some respect for the risks that miners assume routinely so we can flick on the lights, and a small burst of appreciation for the reassuring banality of the cubicle maze in which most of us work. The main website of the federal governments Mine Safety and Health Administration has a section on the home page that shows “Fatalities YTD.” And it has a link to a page showing the number of miners, and the number of miners killed, every year since 1900.

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We have, at least, come a long way in 100 years. In 1907, there were 3,242 deaths in coal mines — 66 per week. That is, more in a week than there are now in a typical year.

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About the author

Charles Fishman, an award-winning Fast Company contributor, is the author of One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission that Flew Us to the Moon. His exclusive 50-part series, 50 Days to the Moon, will appear here between June 1 and July 20.

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