Mine Disaster FAQ

What to do if you’re trapped, and other questions answered.

See Magnum Photos’ “ Ode to Miners” in images.

At least 25 miners were killed and four remain missing after an explosion in a West Virginia coal mine on Monday. The accident—the deadliest in U.S. mining in more than 25 years—came on the heels of a mine disaster in China, where an average of seven miners die every day. How can miners survive these disasters, and how can the law keep them safer? Slate answers your most pressing coal-mine-related questions.

What do you do if you’re trapped in a mine?
As soon as a miner discovers a problem, he should reach for his self-contained self-rescuer, a breathing apparatus designed to provide oxygen for at least one hour. In most cases, a miner would put on his SCSR and then make for the nearest safe escape route. His best bet would be an intake passage, which links to the outside and provides fresh air to the mine. Intake routes are marked all the way to the exit with color-coded reflectors. (They’re often green; a secondary escape route might be marked in red.) If there’s no power or light, a miner might be able to use a rope attached to the wall or ceiling as a guide.

If the escape route is blocked, and there’s absolutely no way to get to another one, miners are trained to barricade themselves into a relatively safe place. First, they use hand-held gas monitors to find a spot with clean air—an intake passage might be pretty good, even if it’s blocked off on one end. (Not every miner carries a gas monitor: Every foreman should have one, as should any miner who operates heavy equipment.)

For more detail, read this Explainer from 2006.

Why don’t miners carry GPS so it’s easier to find them?
Because those gadgets don’t work underground. The wireless signals that we use on the surface to make phone calls, send e-mails, or find our GPS coordinates have a hard time traveling through the earth. All of these signals can be obstructed by the concrete, mineral water, and coal in a mine. To send a signal through a tunnel that runs for miles, you might need to place wireless receivers in a relay at each bend or turn, which would be very expensive.

For now, miners have to rely on rudimentary locating means. They might call a dispatcher each time they move to a different part of the mine, using phone lines that are strung along the tunnel ceiling. A more high-tech version of this same system uses radio frequency sensors—RFID tags—on each person to track them when they reach certain areas. Placed at key tunnel intersections or work areas, RFID readers pick up each worker’s tag and note when a person is in a particular place. All these data go back to the surface through a physical communication line, like the fiber optic cables that connect office workers to the Internet.

For more detail, read this Explainer from 2007.

How can miners be kept safer? Do we need more legislation?
The real obstacle to safety reform is that miners no longer have a powerful union sticking up for them. History shows that when miners have: 1) been organized and angry; and 2) had the strong national leadership of the United Mine Workers of America backing them up, they’ve been able to push for the legislative changes necessary for lasting advances in safety conditions. Sadly, neither of those two factors exists today. Although mining in the United States is safer now than it was in past decades, that’s the case because organized mine workers pushed hard for reforms a generation ago—reforms that are still in effect. Whether those reforms are enough is now in question.

For more detail, read this article from 2006.

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