Education and Training: None
Salary: Average—$21.57 per hour
Employment Outlook: Poor
Definition and Nature of the Work
Coal is used as fuel and in the production of steel and plastics. Raw coal is found in deposits in the earth. Coal miners bring coal to the surface. They transport coal to preparation plants where preparation plant operators process the raw coal according to buyers' needs. Miners also work to ensure mine safety.
The main types of coal are bituminous (soft coal), anthracite (hard coal), and subbituminous coal. Bituminous coal is very common and has several uses, while subbituminous coals like peat have limited uses. The use of anthracite is declining. Coal is mined in different ways depending on where the deposits are found. Miners extract coal from deposits at or near ground level using the surface mining method. Surface mining crews remove the earth that covers the coal and gradually scoop out the coal. In areas where coal deposits are deep underground, miners dig tunnels into the earth and use one of three methods of underground mining: conventional, continuous, or longwall mining.
In conventional mining the cutting machine operator uses a long electric chain saw to slice a strip under the coal deposit. Slicing along the bottom of the coal seam helps control where the fragments fall when miners blast the coal deposit. Then the drilling machine operator drills holes into the coal deposit. The shot firer fills these holes with explosives. After the explosion loosens the coal, the loading machine operator dumps scooped-up coal onto conveyor belts or into small cars run by the shuttle car operator. From there the coal is transported to a main conveyor or to mine cars. The cars take it to the surface in skips (huge buckets) or by another conveyor.
In contrast, continuous mining does not use drilling or blasting. The continuous mining machine operator uses a machine that tears out the coal and loads it onto a conveyor or shuttle car. In longwall mining the longwall machine operator first strengthens the roof of the mine with special jacks. Then the operator uses a set of machines to cut coal and dump it onto a conveyor.
Some miners do not actually dig out coal. Their job is to protect other workers from hazards or to build tunnels that make digging possible. Before miners begin working underground, the fire boss checks the work area for dangerous gases, a good air supply, and safe roof support. The rock dust machine operator sprays walls and floors with limestone to lessen the chance of coal dust exploding or causing breathing problems. Stopping builders put up walls and other structures to direct air into work areas.
Strip mining is used in areas where a great deal of earth is covering the deposit. This earth, or overburden, is drilled and then blasted. Then the overburden stripping operator or dragline operator removes the dirt that covers the coal. The coal loading machine operator tears out the coal and dumps it onto trucks for shipment to the preparation plant. In another type of mine, auger mines, the rotary auger operator drills the coal from the side of hills. Tractor operators driving bulldozers move earth or pull out boulders and other large objects. Helpers also take part in the work. When machines break down, fitters perform the repairs.
At the preparation plant workers remove rocks and other debris from the coal before washing, sorting, and blending. Some preparation plants employ only one worker who oversees machines that do the work automatically. This worker is the preparation plant central control operator. In less modern plants wash box attendants run machines that sort coal by size and remove impurities. The separation tender operates a machine that further cleans the coal with water.
Education and Training Requirements
Most miners learn their work on the job by helping experienced miners. Nevertheless, formal training is becoming more important, because miners are starting to use more complex machines and methods. As a result of these changes, mining companies offer special courses to their workers. Beginning miners can start in training mines where they learn the skills safely, or they can go through a classroom program before they begin work in mines.
Often companies prefer to hire those who already have training in mining methods. Some colleges, especially those in mining regions, offer courses in mining methods. Interested students may earn a certificate in mine studies in one year or an associate degree in two years. Usually the study programs do not require a high school diploma. However, candidates may have to pass a basic skills test in math and English.
An underground miner must be able to work in cramped spaces, have good reflexes, and be in good health. Miners should be able to work well with others. Many states require miners to be at least eighteen years old, but workers under eighteen can fill aboveground and office jobs.
Getting the Job
Apply directly to the hiring office of a mining company. Many new applicants come from mining families and know something about the job before they start. The more an applicant knows, the better the chances of being hired.
Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook
Experienced workers may advance to jobs in the mine that offer higher pay. A few may become supervisors.
Through the year 2012 the employment opportunities in this field are expected to decline by fifteen percent as the use of coal as an energy resource decreases. Many utilities and manufacturing industries are exploring energy alternatives as a result of stricter environmental regulations.
Underground mines are cold, noisy, damp, and dark. Sometimes water collects on the mine floor. Most mine areas are lighted only by lamps attached to miners' helmets. Miners may have to work on their hands and knees or lie down to reach some coal seams. The work is physically strenuous.
Although conditions are safer now, accidents sometimes occur, so miners must always be alert. Constant breathing of coal dust may cause lung disorders such as "black lung," or pneumoconiosis.
On the average miners work a forty-hour week. Underground miners work a few more hours a week than surface miners because of the time spent traveling to and from the surface of the mine. Many miners belong to labor unions.
Earnings and Benefits
Coal miners, on average, earn $21.57 per hour, depending on job, experience, and geographical location. Overall, underground miners earn more than surface miners.
Where to Go for More Information
National Mining Association
101 Constitution Ave. NW, Suite 500 East
Washington, DC 20001-2133
Mine Safety and Health Association
1100 Wilson Blvd., 21st Floor
Arlington, VA 222090-3939
Unionized mine workers receive paid holidays and vacations, personal and sick leave, and retirement funds.