By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A Chinese metal miner has written two collections of poetry about his work. Mining for rare metals involves detonating explosives underground. Mining of any kind is a dangerous occupation.
Working as a miner is rarely seen as glamorous. Miners burrow and blast into the Earth for precious metals and coal, emerging covered in dirt and soot. Dozens are killed every year. However, one Chinese miner has turned the worries, dangers, and hopes of the mining industry into two successful books of poetry. Chen Nianxi is becoming a major figure in “migrant worker literature,” in which the honor and dangers of everyday work collide with the toll they take.
Explosions and cave-ins make mining a risky job. Coal mining is especially dangerous since it adds combustible materials, poisonous gases, and inhalation of coal dust into the mix. In his video series The Industrial Revolution, Dr. Patrick N. Allitt, Cahoon Family Professor of American History at Emory University, revealed the dangers of coal mining, using Britain as an example.
Ancient Coal Mining
“Since ancient times, inhabitants of Britain had burned coal from geological outcrops, but weathering made it poor fuel,” Dr. Allitt said. “By the time of the Romans, they understood the need to dig into the ground to recover it to find fuel that was going to burn better. Coal is the compressed remnants of plants that grew millions of years ago; mining it has always been, and still is, among the most dangerous jobs in the world.”
Dr. Allitt cited cave-ins, carbon monoxide release, and disease-causing coal dust inhalation as risks of coal mining specifically. These dangers often breed animosity between miners and the mine owners who profit from their work. The work environment isn’t the only source of stress for miners.
“The traditional coal mine had a shaft about eight feet in diameter,” he said. “This dug straight down into the earth until it meets the coal seams, and then lateral tunnels are dug out from the bottom of the shaft, the “pit head,” to dig up the coal itself. It’s hauled up the shaft in woven baskets […] called corves by a team of horses or turning a windlass at the top to drag the corves up the shaft.”
Early miners used what’s called the “bord-and-pillar” system. Using pickaxes, they’d cut out some of the coal but leave large pillars of it to support the roof of the cave. That system wasted approximately half of the available coal.
Modern Times, Modern Problems
As with any fossil fuel, coal is a finite resource. As its use continued, mines had to get bigger and deeper. This came with a series of dangers that could no longer be handled with ancient mining methods. One of the biggest dangers was that of flooding.
“Flooding was severe, especially in mines near the coast, such as the huge mining area around Newcastle upon Tyne, which developed early on,” Dr. Allitt said. “Primitive pumps were unsatisfactory; chains of buckets drawing water out of the mines simply weren’t efficient enough. If the mine was set on high ground, it was sometimes possible to build an adit or a drain lower down, but better methods were urgently needed by 1700.”
Another danger involved ventilation. Mines are very difficult to supply with circulating air, and the poisonous gases hadn’t gone away over the years. However, this problem was bigger than carbon monoxide or coal dust inhalation. A phenomenon known as “choke damp” was a mixture of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water vapor. It was unbreathable and could suffocate miners.
Finally, there was “fire damp,” which is methane. Methane can explode.
“Newcastle on Tyne had a reputation for ‘fiery pits’—in other words, pits that were full of fire damp—and there were frequent lethal explosions,” Dr. Allitt said. “For example, 30 men were killed in Gateshead near Newcastle in an explosion in 1705; 69 more were killed at Chester-Le-Street in a 1708 explosion.”
If there is a silver lining to these clouds, it may be found in migrant worker literature like that of Chen Nianxi, the miner-turned-poet.