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March 22, 2022 7 min read
Mine safety improves with each passing decade. And from 2017 to 2020, the overall number of injuries declined by roughly a quarter. But injury ratesin the mining industry have fallen far more slowly—and the profession remains one of the most dangerous in the United States, period.
This article examines the industry’s unique hazards, emphasizing a crucial area of mining safety: preventing injuries to the head and brain. First, we'll look at mine safety rules and statistics, followed by highlighting the features of mining hard hats and helmets that help prevent injuries and fatalities.
On West Virginia Route 3, in a town of fewer than 600 people, stands a series of silhouettes memorialized in granite. The monument preserves the history of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, a 2010 explosion that bent rail lines “like pretzels,” shook a mountain, and claimed the lives of 29 people working underground.
A roadside dedication to those lost in the Upper Big Branch mine disaster. Image source: Upper Big Branch Miners Memorial
Mining’s history is full of disasters like this. The industry is so hazardous that it has its own safety organization: The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). And the profession remains treacherous even in years without major catastrophes. Coal mining remains the most dangerous specialization, substantially outpacing all other forms of mining in overall and per capita injury rates. As of 2021, there were only five times in the MSHA’s 43-year history where fewer than 30 miners perished, and long-term afflictions like black lung disease persist.
Yet disease, cave-ins, and other hazards unique to mining are only part of the safety challenge. More commonplace issues—slips and falls, handling or transporting materials, and the use of tools or machinery—generate the vast majority of fatal and lost-time injuries.
Of particular concern are traumatic brain injuries (TBIs). More severe forms can kill quickly, but even mild concussions can contribute to life-long impairments. 2008 data from the Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) suggest that fatalTBIs occur in mining at a rate of 4.8 per 100,000 workers each year. That’s nearly 80% more often than construction, the industry with the highest total number of workplace TBIs.
It’s the substantial share of mining workers engaged in “support activities” (like running derricks and rotary drills) that are most at risk. According to CFOI data, these activities saw 5.8 fatal TBIs per 100,000. That’s the second-highest rate overall—only loggers die from head injuries more often—and more than twice the fatality rate seen in construction.
When it comes to miner hard hat requirements, there are two big players at the federal level: The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Depending on what sort of mining is done and how, either MSHA or OSHA rules apply:
Many extractive industries fall under MSHA’s purview. But when resources are extracted in liquid form—as they would be at this Williston, North Dakota oil rig—employers follow OSHA’s rules. Image source: Lindsey Gira via Wikimedia (CC BY 2.0)
For those not employed in underground coal mining, OSHA and MSHA offer roughly the same guidance on head protection. Those engaged in metallic and nonmetallic mining on the surface must don headgear when there’s a risk of impact, as must workers at above-ground coal mines. (The same is also true in industries governed by OSHA, like petroleum extraction.) Mining helmets must also protect against electrical shocks or burns when such threats exist.
Regardless of whether OSHA rules apply or MSHA-approved hard hats are required, all headgear must meet or exceed standards established by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).
Those standards are rigorous: Helmets that meet them have been evaluated or tested against a wide range of threats, such as fire, electricity, impact, and penetration. ANSI even accounts for optional features, using markings like “LT” or “HT” for low- and high-temperature ratings, respectively, and rounded arrows for models that may safely be worn backward.
In our look at standards for construction hard hats, we explained how ANSI’s standard for industrial head protection (Z89.1) describes two types of hard hats:
In Z89.2, ANSI addresses electrical hazards, distinguishing between helmets that offer little or no protection against electricity (Class C) and those that do. Those offering low-voltage protection (up to 2,200 volts) are Class G types, whereas those that protect against high-voltage threats (up to 20,000 volts) are Class E.
While conditions must be evaluated site-by-site, mining's high rate of head injuries likely calls for ANSI Type II helmets. Further, the industry's historically high rate of electrical injuries suggests that at least Class G protection (if not Class E) is appropriate in many cases.
ANSI’s standards cover all of these factors, but those are just the beginning: manufacturers are free to exceed them. Some innovations, like 3D-printed padding, may make impacts to the head less intense, for example. For more details—including a look at the extensive vetting that goes into industrial-grade helmets—take a look at our deep dive into the ANSI standard.
While most American industries follow near-identical rules for head protection, underground coal mining is unique.
MSHA hard hat regulations have significant similarities with standard rules: Homemade hard hats and caps and other models that don’t comply with ANSI standards won't cut it. In addition, the class and type of each helmet should offer sufficient protection against impact and electrical shock. And mining hard hats must be regularly inspected and replaced if they have “cracked or split shells” or “damaged suspensions.”
There are some differences, though. For starters, head protection is required everywhere miners normally work or travel—not just in places where there’s a threat of falling objects, impacts, or electrical injury. Further, while it’s usually best to replace helmets with worn certification marks (which indicate a helmet’s type and class, among other things), MSHA states that such markings may be allowed to fade as long as at least one remains intact.
There are a few other unusual MSHA hard hat requirements for the gear used in underground coal mines:
In this 1996 photograph, miners equipped with hard hats and cap lamps in Raleigh County, Virginia, board a battery-powered vehicle. Image source: Library of Congress
Our article on hard hat accessories emphasized that third-party stickers and paint are generally not a good idea. That’s generally true for underground coal mining hard hats, too: Any modification, no matter how small, should be performed following the helmet manufacturers’ instructions.
However, MSHA’s rules do anticipate additions like reflective tape. And elsewhere, they add that any paints added to helmets should be “nonmetallic.” But while these modifications may be commonplace in coal mining, proceed with caution: Too many decals and coatings can conceal serious defects in a hard hat, and some chemicals found in specific paints may reduce the protection provided.
Since the early 1900s, improvements in mine safety have eliminated more than 90% of fatal injuries, vastly lengthening mineral workers’ and coal miners’ life expectancies. But mining remains a dangerous industry. And simple steps—including wearing the right sort of hard hat—can save lives.
Workers looking to get the most out of their headgear should:
For more information on hard hat selection, head injury, and worker safety, take a look at our in-depth look at ANSI hard hat standards, the science of helmets and TBIs, and our explainer on OSHA’s rules for hard hat selection—or check out other posts on the Hard Head Veterans blog.