The coal miner’s helmet

This is a brief post, picking up on a theme I discussed a few posts ago and which is increasingly at the center of my research focus, though in a slightly different way in this example. I have been doing, as I’ve noted, research on the embodied knowledge of labor and workers in the workplace, looking especially at bureaucrats and policy experts in government departments dedicated to foreign affairs, trade, and development aid. But this concept of course extends to other (all) kinds of workers and workspaces, and a variety of forms of knowledge and embodiment. In that vein, I listened to an excellent recent episode of the podcast 99 Percent Invisible yesterday and wanted to share it and some thoughts on the topic it covered, which was safety in coal mines.

The episode, titled “Coal Hogs Work Safe”, looks at a particular space – the sides and backs of American coal miners’ helmets – where concerns about workplace safety, government and company regulatory practices, and cultural identity all mesh together in fascinating ways. I won’t provide any spoilers here for those who want to check it out, but in brief, it looks at the reflective stickers that coal miners must wear on their helmets when they head underground. This is part of federal safety regulations that have come into effect over the last 30 to 40 years, which could be met by simple pieces of plain reflective tape on the helmet. But to ensure more robust compliance, and through government, company, union, and worker efforts at making the space on the helmets a space of knowledge about workplace safety, miners instead often have a variety of stickers that include slogans about worker health and safety, the local communities or union locals in which mines are located, performance indicators, and other culturally meaningful symbology.

This is all interesting to me not just because it shows how the space of the worker’s body – the helmet as an educational tool, a piece of safety equipment, and a space for building and contesting geographic, class, racial, and gender identity – is vital to understanding the workplace and changes in the coal industry and the places it dominates more generally, but also because my uncle and grandfather worked in coal mines in eastern Kentucky for decades. Both have passed away now, and both due primarily to lung conditions they developed from exposure to coal and rock dust in the mines. I never talked to them much about their working lives in the mines, though my grandfather always had his UMWA calendar proudly displayed on the wall, and my uncle, who was a foreman and not a mine worker for long stretches of his career, often spoke strongly about the fights between management and workers over responsibility for health and safety in the mines (despite being a foreman for long stretches, he was not particularly fond of management). I wonder about their own relationship to the issues raised in the podcast, especially as my grandfather started working in the mines well before the more vigilant attention to safety and more extensive federal regulations on health and safety in the mines came into effect. I know as well that their lives were strongly shaped by the work they did, but, like the miner interviewed in the podcast, their families were perhaps unaware of the details of miners’ day to day work. I have rarely if ever heard my mother or her other brothers say anything that would make me think my grandfather told them what it was like to work in the mine day in and day out. But they lived at various times in coal camps, the company towns in southeastern Kentucky and western Virginia that were established and controlled by the coal companies to house their workers, and I know they left the region briefly in the early 1960s to move north to the Chicago area looking for work, part of a much larger mass migration from the Appalachian coal fields to northern industrial cities from Pittsburgh to Chicago as new technologies rapidly modernized mining and displaced mine workers in massive numbers over just a few years. Mien workers were often unruly and hard to control as well, with militant unions (sometimes) and a proclivity to strike. Coal strikes could be disruptive far beyond the immediate location of the strike, as coal was part and parcel of the industrial landscape in the US, needed for the foundries making steel and for electricity generation. The last unionized coal mine in Kentucky closed in 2015, though, ending a century or more of union battles with industry, which often became violent and invited military-style intervention from state and federal governments.

In any case, I highly recommend this episode of 99pi, and am hoping to write a bit more about coal mining, eastern Kentucky, and my family history in future posts. Those interested in this should check out the richly detailed book They Say in Harlan County: An Oral History by Alessandro Portelli; Harry Caudill’s classic 1963 environmental and social history of coal mining in eastern Kentucky, Night Comes to the Cumberlands: A Biography of a Depressed Area (which I think I have mentioned before in a previous post); and of course Barbara Kopple’s excellent 1976 documentary Harlan County, USA. There is much more going on in this part of the world than aging mines and fights over health and safety though – it is hard hit by the opioid crisis, there is a longstanding political and cultural fight over “bringing back” coal jobs and the relationship between environmental regulation and coal mining (absurd, I think, because these jobs have been lost mostly due to technological modernization, not environmental over-regulation), there are serious concerns over the sustainability and impacts of strip mining, and there are scarred landscapes, both above and below ground, scarred communities, and scarred people which provide opportunity to rethink the economic and environmental future of a region that remains among the poorest in the US. Maybe I’ll get to some of that later, maybe not, but there are many threads to pull apart in these places and a good starting point is the mine worker at the coal face.