Stunning photos show what it's really like to work deep underground in an American coal mine

Terry Hardman works underground at the West Elk Mine in Somerset Colorado, April 28, 2016.Terry Hardman works underground at the West Elk Mine in Somerset Colorado, April 28, 2016.RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post / Getty

  • In the US, coal mining is a shrinking industry. In 1923, there were about 883,000 coal miners; today there are about 53,000.
  • Working in coal mines is dangerous - miners have to deal with toxic gases, plus the threat of being crushed, drowned, or injured from fires and explosions.
  • Some miners love it. It can be a family tradition, it's exciting, and the pay is usually pretty good. When a mine closes, miners would often rather work in another mine elsewhere than retrain.
  • Curtis Burton, a 42-year-old coal miner, who spent 17 years working in mines, told Business Insider what the job is like.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Coal mining is dark, dirty, and dangerous work.

It's not for everyone - it's for the few who love to descend into the bowels of the Earth to extract "black gold." Even as they face the risk of mines collapsing, or catching on fire, or the long term health threats like black lung.

As Curtis Burton, who spent the last 17 years working in or for coal mines in Pennsylvania, told Business Insider, coal mining is a hard job, but it's also entirely unique. "Every day you're seeing a part of the earth nobody else is seeing ever," he said.

Coal currently fuels just under 40% of the world's electricity. It's the most polluting fossil fuel, but it's also cheap and relatively plentiful. In the US, natural gas and renewables are replacing it as the top energy sources, even as President Donald Trump has promised to bring coal mining back.

Asia has the most coal mines operating today, with 1,200. The area is responsible for 75% of the world's consumption. Coal mines are also booming in Australia, which earns about $67 billion in annual exports from them.

Here's what life working in coal mines is really like.

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Down in a coal mine, there's no such thing as a "nine to five."

Down in a coal mine, there's no such thing as a "nine to five."

Miners usually work shifts, and they can be on for 10 days in a row. Some head down before sunrise and return anywhere from seven to 12 hours later.

Curtis Burton, 42, said at Cumberland Mine in Greene County, Pennsylvania, there are three eight-hour shifts, but each one ends up taking 10 hours, because of the two hours it takes to get to the site before miners can get to work.

Inside a mine there's no natural light. Although Burton said with all of the technology, it's no longer as dark as once it was. "But when you shut everything off it's as dark as dark gets," he said.

Inside a mine there's no natural light. Although Burton said with all of the technology, it's no longer as dark as once it was. "But when you shut everything off it's as dark as dark gets," he said.

"Everyday when you go underground you're seeing a part of the earth nobody is else is seeing ever. I always thought it was neat," he said.

When Burton started mining 17 years ago, miners brought their own clothes — typically blue jeans, a T-shirt, a belt to hold a torch and tools, and heavy boots.

When Burton started mining 17 years ago, miners brought their own clothes — typically blue jeans, a T-shirt, a belt to hold a torch and tools, and heavy boots.

Now miners wear clothing with reflective patches.

Now miners wear clothing with reflective patches.

Helmets protect the head, and torches light the way.

Helmets protect the head, and torches light the way.

In Poland's largest mine, Pniowek, before work begins miners cross themselves in front of Saint Barbara, the patron of miners ...

In Poland's largest mine, Pniowek, before work begins miners cross themselves in front of Saint Barbara, the patron of miners ...

Source: Washington Post

... and they never say good morning to their peers, because it's bad luck. Instead, they say, "God bless."

... and they never say good morning to their peers, because it's bad luck. Instead, they say, "God bless."

In Germany, they say "Glueck Auf," which roughly translates to "good luck," because of how uncertain the coal miner's life is.

Burton (seen here) said in the US, it was mostly "old timers" who had their rituals. "Miners are a creature of habit," he said. If the left boot goes on first, that's the way it'll carry on going.

Burton (seen here) said in the US, it was mostly "old timers" who had their rituals. "Miners are a creature of habit," he said. If the left boot goes on first, that's the way it'll carry on going.

When Burton was going down into the mines every day, he said he kissed the photograph of his daughter who had passed away, and asked her to make sure to look out for him and ensure he got out.

Miners descend thousands of feet into the earth to get to the coal. Burton said getting underground was quick — it might take four minutes in an elevator.

Miners descend thousands of feet into the earth to get to the coal. Burton said getting underground was quick — it might take four minutes in an elevator.

Source: Mining Technology

But it can take two hours, along miles of rail tracks, for miners to get to the working section of the mine. They are paid for this time.

But it can take two hours, along miles of rail tracks, for miners to get to the working section of the mine. They are paid for this time.

Because mines go so deep, the air pressure can be enormous. And while ceilings can be bolted, it's not a foolproof technique. Burton said some mines have tried to cut costs by using cheaper roof bolts, but it's counter-productive, and unsafe.

Because mines go so deep, the air pressure can be enormous. And while ceilings can be bolted, it's not a foolproof technique. Burton said some mines have tried to cut costs by using cheaper roof bolts, but it's counter-productive, and unsafe.

Floors can heave and walls can collapse. Miners call it a "bounce."

There are also deadly gases in the mines, like carbon monoxide and methane. Miners no longer take canaries down to test air quality, though.

There are also deadly gases in the mines, like carbon monoxide and methane. Miners no longer take canaries down to test air quality, though.

That ended in 1986, and was replaced by an electronic detector that provides a digital reading of gases. Monitoring the mines is necessary, because methane doesn't have a smell, and it can't be seen. Typically, the deeper a mine goes, the more methane is released, because there's more pressure. When methane mixes with coal dust the combination can be explosive.

To get methane out, miners pump fresh air into the mine. Unfortunately, methane is unpredictable and can billow through the mine unexpectedly.

To get methane out, miners pump fresh air into the mine. Unfortunately, methane is unpredictable and can billow through the mine unexpectedly.

According to Edward Kavazanjian Jr., a professor of civil engineering at Arizona State University, the problem isn't setting up proper ventilation. It's that coal mines sometimes cut corners, not wanting to waste valuable resources, like time and money.

Coal mining is, and has been, a changing industry. Technology, like rock crushers and shovel swings, have replaced workers for years. That's how employment managed to fall from 250,000 miners in 1979 to 53,000 in 2010, while coal production still increased.

Coal mining is, and has been, a changing industry. Technology, like rock crushers and shovel swings, have replaced workers for years. That's how employment managed to fall from 250,000 miners in 1979 to 53,000 in 2010, while coal production still increased.

Source: Time

Despite the technological advances, it's still exhausting work. Burton said quite a few tasks are repetitive and physical, like hanging power cables, and manually stacking crib blocks (which provide support in the mines).

Despite the technological advances, it's still exhausting work. Burton said quite a few tasks are repetitive and physical, like hanging power cables, and manually stacking crib blocks (which provide support in the mines).

Source: The New York Times

At the end of a long shift, miners need to rest.

At the end of a long shift, miners need to rest.

Although some miners are more tired having to defend their jobs all the time from the public's negative perception of it.

But they're strong. After the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster in 2007, to find miners to interview, NPR journalist Scott Carrier said he looked for men with arms the width of his legs.

But they're strong. After the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster in 2007, to find miners to interview, NPR journalist Scott Carrier said he looked for men with arms the width of his legs.

Source: NPR

Piotr Grabon, a safety engineer who works with miners in Poland, said miners are typically "tough guys." In a lot of ways, they're disciplined like the military, and well aware that mistakes can be deadly.

Piotr Grabon, a safety engineer who works with miners in Poland, said miners are typically "tough guys." In a lot of ways, they're disciplined like the military, and well aware that mistakes can be deadly.

Source: Washington Post

Food is essential. In West Virginia, the unofficial mining food is pepperoni rolls. They're thought to have been one of the main items miners took down in the early days of mining, since cured meats last longer.

Food is essential. In West Virginia, the unofficial mining food is pepperoni rolls. They're thought to have been one of the main items miners took down in the early days of mining, since cured meats last longer.

Burton said pepperoni roles were a staple, along with ham and lunch meat sandwiches. Mines also now have microwaves. He said in his time he'd had some pretty good, inventive meals underground. Sometimes, they cooked on top of a load center, which is a power distribution box with 12,470 volts running through it, that everything plugs into.

"On several occasions, my wife would make a big pan of lasagna for the guys on the crew," he said. "They're your family; you're often around them more than your family."

So for Christmas dinner, or Thanksgiving, he would bring down a pan of lasagna and put it on top of the hot load center, so that come lunch time the team would have a nice hot meal.

A big draw for miners is the high pay. As Debbie Baker, who lived in Letcher County, Kentucky, told The New York Times, you could always tell if someone was a miner in her town, because they had money.

A big draw for miners is the high pay. As Debbie Baker, who lived in Letcher County, Kentucky, told The New York Times, you could always tell if someone was a miner in her town, because they had money.

In the US, you don't need a college education to be paid well. In Kentucky, in 2011, if a miner was willing to work overtime, they could be bringing in $100,000 a year, plus overtime.

For Burton, who never planned to be a miner, even though several family members had worked in mines, it was the pay that drew him to it.

"It was dumb luck," he said. "I looked around and thought what can I make the most money doing, and my buddy said mining is making money at the time." He started on $20 an hour, and it grew on him from there.

The danger of the job also makes it a matter of pride. It creates a camaraderie between those risking their lives.

The danger of the job also makes it a matter of pride. It creates a camaraderie between those risking their lives.

Burton said working for the coal mining company on the surface wasn't quite the same.

It can be a family affair, too, with several generations working in the same mine. These two men worked a mine in northern Colorado, with two other brothers and their uncle.

It can be a family affair, too, with several generations working in the same mine. These two men worked a mine in northern Colorado, with two other brothers and their uncle.

Source: ABC News

For a lot of mining areas, coal has become a symbol. In West Virginia, the state's official rock is coal, and rivers, roads, and sports stadiums are all named after it.

For a lot of mining areas, coal has become a symbol. In West Virginia, the state's official rock is coal, and rivers, roads, and sports stadiums are all named after it.

Source: Time

And toiling coal miners are seen a symbol of traditional American masculinity, a lot like cowboys.

And toiling coal miners are seen a symbol of traditional American masculinity, a lot like cowboys.

Source: The Week

Today, surface mining produces more coal in the US than underground mining. About 430 surface mines produce about 500 million short tons of coal per year, while around 230 underground mines produce about 270 million short tons.

Today, surface mining produces more coal in the US than underground mining. About 430 surface mines produce about 500 million short tons of coal per year, while around 230 underground mines produce about 270 million short tons.

Source: EIA

In the US, one mining technique is known as "room and pillar mining," where corridors are cut out in a grid pattern. In a mine in Huntington, for example, corridors were cut eight feet high and 15 feet wide, running for 1,000 feet. After 70 these parallel corridors were cut 100 feet apart, the same was done across, creating an underground network of streets.

In the US, one mining technique is known as "room and pillar mining," where corridors are cut out in a grid pattern. In a mine in Huntington, for example, corridors were cut eight feet high and 15 feet wide, running for 1,000 feet. After 70 these parallel corridors were cut 100 feet apart, the same was done across, creating an underground network of streets.

Sources: NPR, Encyclopedia Britannica

What comes next is called retreating, which is when miners carve the valuable coal out of the remaining walls, and allow ceilings to collapse. The technique can be dangerous, and is known as "greeding it out."

What comes next is called retreating, which is when miners carve the valuable coal out of the remaining walls, and allow ceilings to collapse. The technique can be dangerous, and is known as "greeding it out."

When the ceilings collapse, it actually relieves pressure in the mine. Excavation has improved also with most coal mines using machines to chisel out the coal instead of explosives.

The other main form of underground mining in the US is "longwall," where coal is cut from seams that are often a mile long and hundreds of feet thick. As Burton put it, "it's like a giant meat slicer. It just goes back and forth along the block of coal, like a big old thing of baloney, and you're just cutting it."

The other main form of underground mining in the US is "longwall," where coal is cut from seams that are often a mile long and hundreds of feet thick. As Burton put it, "it's like a giant meat slicer. It just goes back and forth along the block of coal, like a big old thing of baloney, and you're just cutting it."

In 2011, longwall mining was responsible for 40% of coal in the US from underground mines.

This type of mining can impinge on people who live in the area, however. The heavy machinery can cause noise pollution, and the removal of such large amounts of coal can cause roads to crack and streams to empty.

Coal mining is still dangerous. In 2010, West Virginia had the worst coal mining disaster in the US in 40 years, when an explosion killed 29 people.

Coal mining is still dangerous. In 2010, West Virginia had the worst coal mining disaster in the US in 40 years, when an explosion killed 29 people.

The year before, 34 people died mining, which was a record low for the US.

The US had its worst ever coal mining accident in 1907, when 362 people died after a coal mine exploded in Monongah, West Virginia. That year, 3,242 people died in coal mining accidents. Coal mines have continued to have fires and explosions, killing hundreds of miners over the years.

Burton said he would like to believe mines have gotten safer, but during times of economic hardship mines often started making cutbacks, which could be dangerous.

He had his own scare in August 2005, when he was in a mine with a good friend and the roof buried them. They were injured but they survived. Despite the danger, he said he was always going to continue working.

"To me, at that time, there was no question. I was going back in. I don't like to say it's part of the job, but you understand the inherent nature of the beast when you go underground. Most guys hopefully understand things happen, that you're still dealing with mother nature underground. If you do something she don't like she's gonna let you know about it."

Working for years in mines can cause other health issues, like black lung.

Working for years in mines can cause other health issues, like black lung.

Black lung comes from inhaling coal dust. The dust blankets the miner's airways, and when white blood cells try to break the dust particles down, they fail, and end up damaging lung tissue instead.

Between 2011 and 2016, a NPR and Frontline investigation found more than 2,000 coal miners had black lung in Appalachian states alone, when the federal government had only reported 99 cases across the country.

Burton, who has a brother who's still working in mines, said black lung was a big problem.

Burton, who has a brother who's still working in mines, said black lung was a big problem.

"It's more prevalent today then it ever was because the machinery is bigger. As you run back and forth with bigger machinery, it makes a lot more breathable dust that gets into the air," he said.

He said mines had practices to alleviate it, like wetting down roadways, installing proper ventilation, turning on water sprays, ensuring cuttings heads were working properly, and making sure miners positioned themselves to minimize harm. They also tried to control and direct the dust.

"But it's not a problem that's going away easily," he said.

Despite the health problems stemming from coal dust, at least one retired miner, named Joe Wimmer, actually missed it. He said he craved it the way smokers crave nicotine.

Despite the health problems stemming from coal dust, at least one retired miner, named Joe Wimmer, actually missed it. He said he craved it the way smokers crave nicotine.

"When you get coal dust in your lungs, you want to go back," he told ABC News in 2010.

But more retirements might be coming. Between 2011 and 2016, the total value of the four biggest coal companies in the US fell from $33 billion to $150 million. Following the trend, Blackjewel mining, one of the largest coal companies in the US, filed for bankruptcy in July, leading to 1,700 potential job losses.

But more retirements might be coming. Between 2011 and 2016, the total value of the four biggest coal companies in the US fell from $33 billion to $150 million. Following the trend, Blackjewel mining, one of the largest coal companies in the US, filed for bankruptcy in July, leading to 1,700 potential job losses.

Sources: The Week, The Guardian

It's in part due to coal being the most polluting fossil fuel. Alternatives, like wind and solar power, have become more feasible, and funding has been diverted. There's also a strong environmental movement that's against coal mining.

It's in part due to coal being the most polluting fossil fuel. Alternatives, like wind and solar power, have become more feasible, and funding has been diverted. There's also a strong environmental movement that's against coal mining.

Sources: US Energy Information Administration, The New York Times, The New York Times, The Atlantic

Coal mining is still a big earner for Australia. There, coal mines brought in about about $67 billion in annual exports in 2018. But there's the potential for losses if China starts to use more of its own coal, or less coal in general.

Coal mining is still a big earner for Australia. There, coal mines brought in about about $67 billion in annual exports in 2018. But there's the potential for losses if China starts to use more of its own coal, or less coal in general.

Source: Financial Times

In China, 4.3 million people are employed in coal mines, and the country uses 50% of the world's coal. It's also invested heavily in solar and wind power.

In China, 4.3 million people are employed in coal mines, and the country uses 50% of the world's coal. It's also invested heavily in solar and wind power.

Source: The New York Times

As of 2010, China was the most unsafe place for coal mining. It produced 40% of the world's coal, but had 80% of all coal mining deaths. It's since brought in more safety procedures to keep its workers safe.

As of 2010, China was the most unsafe place for coal mining. It produced 40% of the world's coal, but had 80% of all coal mining deaths. It's since brought in more safety procedures to keep its workers safe.

Source: BBC

In India, which is the third biggest coal producer, there are private, unregulated mines, which show quite a different scenario from American mines.

In India, which is the third biggest coal producer, there are private, unregulated mines, which show quite a different scenario from American mines.

"Rat hole" mining has been popular in India, which is typically where vertical shafts cut down into hills, and then branch out and turn into narrow tunnels. They're dangerous and were banned in 2014, but still exist in parts of the country.

In two-foot high tunnels, workers dig for coal for hours without taking a break. One miners' skin went hard and black because he lay for such long hours on his side digging for coal, the BBC reported.

In the US, when coal mines close, there's no easy answer about what to do afterwards. Some miners retrain. Burton, who now works as a surface electrician, said if his coal mine closed down he would retrain, because he had transferable electrical skills, which would help him continue his career.

In the US, when coal mines close, there's no easy answer about what to do afterwards. Some miners retrain. Burton, who now works as a surface electrician, said if his coal mine closed down he would retrain, because he had transferable electrical skills, which would help him continue his career.

Others might move to try find work at another coal mine. If miners are too old, or in bad physical condition, they could take it as an early retirement.

But whatever comes after working in a coal mine, be it retraining or retirement, it likely won't compare to working thousands of feet below the earth.

But whatever comes after working in a coal mine, be it retraining or retirement, it likely won't compare to working thousands of feet below the earth.
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