The average production worker in the mining industry worked 45.0 hours a week in 2002. Work environments vary by occupation. Scientists and technicians work in office buildings and laboratories, while miners and mining engineers spend much of their time in the mine. Geologists who specialize in the exploration of natural resources may have to travel for extended periods to remote locations, in all types of climates, in order to locate mineral or coal deposits.
Working conditions in mines and quarries can be unusual and sometimes dangerous. Underground mines are damp and dark, and some can be very hot and noisy. At times, several inches of water may cover tunnel floors. Although underground mines have electric lights, only the lights on miners’ caps illuminate many areas. Workers in mines with very low roofs may have to work on their hands and knees, backs, or stomachs, in confined spaces. In underground mining operations, dangers include the possibility of an explosion or cave-in, electric shock, or exposure to harmful gases.
Workers in surface mines and quarries are subject to rugged outdoor work in all kinds of weather and climates. Some surface mines shut down in the winter, because snow and ice covering the minesite makes work too difficult. Physical strength and stamina are necessary, because the work involves lifting, stooping, and climbing. Surface mining, however, usually is less hazardous than underground mining.
In 2002, the rate of work-related injury and illness was 4.1per 100 full-time workers in metal mining, 3.8 in nonmetallic minerals, and 6.8 in coal mining, compared with 5.3 for the entire private sector. Mining illnesses and injuries have steadily declined over the years because of stricter safety laws and improvements in mining machinery and practices. Although mine health and safety conditions have improved dramatically, dust generated by drilling in mines still places miners at risk of developing either of two serious lung diseases: Pneumoconiosis, also called “black lung disease,” from coal dust, or silicosis from rock dust. The Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 regulates dust concentrations in coal mines, and respirable dust levels are closely monitored. Dust concentrations in mines have declined as a result. Underground miners have the option to have their lungs x-rayed when starting a job, with a mandatory follow-up x-ray 3 years later, in order to monitor any development of respiratory illness. Additional x-rays are given every 5 years, on a voluntary basis. Workers who develop black lung disease or silicosis may be eligible for Federal aid.