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Section 1: Inherent dangers of underground working
TOPIC SECTION:
Inherent dangers of underground working practices
Coalmining was once the most dangerous industry in Britain. Men, women and children worked together in appalling conditions,
Picture: 01_10326041.jpg
The miner has to lie under the coal seam to undercut the coal at Foxyards pit, Staffordshire, around the 1890s.
Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
 surviving on little more than the comradeship and strength that were products of this terrifyingly claustrophobic environment. Even in later years, when women and children had long been banned from working underground, miners continued to risk injury and death driving the shafts and underground roadways to mine the coal. Horrific mining disasters, such as the Senghenydd disaster in 1913, when 439 miners died, made the headlines, but far more men were injured or killed in less dramatic accidents occurring every day. Many thousands more suffered from illness and disease as a direct result of working underground in dimly lit, dust-filled, cramped or deafening conditions.

Working the coal releases methane gas which, combined with air, can form an explosive mixture. Major disasters were frequently the result of unsafe working practices, themselves part of the race to produce coal. Rescue teams, often volunteers from local communities, put their own lives at risk for others. An understanding, if not an acceptance, of the ever-present danger of injury and death was fundamental to mining communities in Britain until the mid-twentieth century – there are few industries where the workplace itself is so hostile.
Picture: 01_1983-5236_A1430.jpg
Moving tubs full of coal in the Number 1 pit, Powell, Wales, in 1931.
Credit: NMPFT


Working coal and understanding mining was something learnt from fathers, uncles and older brothers when boys first entered the pit. Life underground was a separate world full of unpredictable hazards; a world where understanding the way the supporting timbers creaked could mean the difference between life and death. This transfer of skills from one generation to the next, and acceptance of an older generation as mentors, may explain many coalfield communities’ strong links with their past. Attitudes to owners, managers, and historic conflict were carried through from generation to generation and from coalfield to coalfield as men moved in search of work.

An understanding, if not an acceptance, of the ever-present danger of injury and death was fundamental to mining communities in Britain until the mid-20th century
Strict health and safety legislation, reinforced by mines inspections, has improved the working conditions in Britain’s mines, but the potential for disaster will always be present. Today, in a risk-aware society, the cost of health and safety continues to rise and this could be the determining factor that puts the final nail in the coffin of the future of deep mining.
 
 
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Conflict & solidarity
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Teamwork was crucial to the safe operation of the mine. This team spirit was carried over into industrial relations but the 1984–85 miners’ strike tore apart the National Union of Mineworkers and divided coalmining communities.  > more

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Pit villages – the mining community
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Coalmining villages were built around the pit and were often geographically isolated. The culture of the coalfield villages has changed over time. However it is unlikely that coal culture can long survive the absence of a pit, despite its strong roots.  > more
 
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