Child's gravestone in Aberfan

Dangers of coal mining

Last updated: 15 August 2008

Heavy industry is almost by definition a dangerous field of enterprise. And like all industry, it's those people at the sharp end - men and boys - who suffer with the dangers.

The lax safety measures of coal mining in the 19th century, oversights and mistakes in the 20th century, and the intrinsic dangers of dealing with geology, meant that Welsh coal mining areas saw horrors almost unsurpassed in peacetime.

South Wales had unusually fragile seams of coal, and its method of extraction gave little leeway in terms of safety in the 19th century. The geology of the rocks meant that slippage and collapse were commonplace.

Add to that the possibility of explosion in deep shaft pits and the ever-present fine coal dust which coated the huge chunks excavated, and there was significant scope for trouble.

Between 1851 and 1920 there were 48 disasters in the south Wales coalfield, and 3,000 deaths.

In 1913, 439 men were killed at the Universal Colliery in Senghenydd. A coal dust explosion ripped through tunnels, possibly triggered by methane igniting from an electrical spark. It still stands as the worst mining accident ever in the UK.

While large incidents were public knowledge, there were daily, small-scale accidents of collapses and accidents. This continual heartache bred community fortitude, and the coal mining communities of Wales are still recognised to have incredible sense of togetherness; something which was further strengthened by hardships borne out of the 1984 Miners' Strike.

After nationalisation, safety did improve, but in 1960 45 men died at the Six Bells Colliery in Abertillery. In 1965, 31 men died in an explosion at the Cambrian Colliery in Clydach Vale.

The most infamous coal disaster of the second half of the 20th century didn't kill workers at the coalface, but instead, their children. On 21 October 1966, waste from the Merthyr Vale colliery slid down the mountainside in Aberfan, swamping a local school and killing 144 people, 116 of whom were children.

But even adding up all the industrial accidents, the death toll would not come close to that as a result of the diseases and conditions contracted by miners in their everyday work.

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