My job means a lot to me. I have the honor of representing Secretary Hilda Solis – and the entire Department of Labor – at a regional level, covering New England, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Delaware, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and Washington, D.C. I’m her eyes and ears, her ambassador. But I’m also the voice of these communities to the work that happens in Washington. I take that very seriously. It’s why I believe that it is important to know firsthand what DOL employees and the workers they protect go through on a daily basis.
It’s no surprise that when the chance came to tag along on a mine inspection by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), I jumped at it. Housed in the Department of Labor, MSHA’s purpose is to prevent death, disease and injury from mining and to promote safe and healthful workplaces for the nation’s miners. There are over 3,800 mine facilities covered by MSHA in my region. The chance to visit the Primrose Slope Mine in Schuykill County, Pa., meant a lot to me. My great-grandfather Angelo Asaro died of black lung in his 40s after working in the mines outside of Wilkes Barre, Pa., leaving my grandfather orphaned when he was 12.
I learned a lot from my trip “down under.” For many – and for me up until this visit – the coal mining industry represents a rich gaggle of multi-billion dollar corporations. The fact is, most mines aren’t owned by large corporations, but rather by small businesses and working families.
This particular mine is owned by Frank Krammes. I expected to meet Frank in a fancy office building somewhere. As it turned out, I met him where he almost always is – in the shack where the surface man hoist was being operated. He showed me the map of his mine on the wall, pointing out the parts that had already been mined and the direction his mining crew was heading along the Primrose vein.
After getting suited up and fully briefed on safety procedures, my MSHA guides Tom Garcia and George McIntyre lead me to the gunboat (a large metal bucket) to descend into the mine. During our 640-foot, 30-degree descent, the potential dangers of working in a mine were immediately apparent. I was repeatedly warned to keep my hands flat on the wire ropes and lanyards that were holding the gunboat. As we descended, the gunboat and ropes scraped along the shaft wall, breaking off chunks of rock and ice, which could just as easily have been any of our fingers.
Hard hats on tight, we worked our way into the mine. At the bottom, we were greeted by two miners who were working to repair the buggy used to pull mine cars full of coal. It made me think that, in many ways, miners are mechanics as well.
We continued along the gangway, doing the “duck walk” to steer clear of the coal chutes above that are used to shovel the coal down into coal cars. Tom and George pointed out the different methods of timbering – a system in which wood supports the ceiling and walls to prevent falling material.
At the end of the gangway, we could see the vein of coal in the middle of the rock wall. At this particular spot the vein was relatively thin – no more than a foot across – which highlighted the unpredictability of the coal business.
Next we climbed up to the “monkey level,” where the actual coal extraction is done by hand. Tom led the way up the chute and up wooden ladders attached to the small shaft. The shaft was so narrow that it was difficult to even lean my head back to shine light up to see where I was headed. In some ways it was a blessing, because rock was raining down on my hard hat from Tom’s climb ahead of me. Once at the top, we ran into an air flow pump which kept fresh air moving throughout the facility (how they got it up the shaft I just climbed is a mystery to me). I kept thinking that these health and safety upgrades could have saved my great-grandfather’s life.
When we got into the monkey level, we were unable to make contact with the miners, and it was unsafe to progress any further without them knowing we were there. They might have been blasting or shoveling coal.
As we turned back, it hit me: The mining processes in these smaller mines today are not much different than in those my great-grandfather worked. Frankly, I am amazed there aren’t many more injuries and fatalities. It’s proof that what MSHA is doing is working – keeping miners safe. I wish MSHA had been around when my great-grandfather Asaro worked in the mines.
Ed. Note. The author of this post, Robert Angelo, is a Regional Representative to U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis.