Working Underground

Article | Updated 1 years ago

 Generally the health of miners is decidedly good . . . [but] the hospital returns show that diseases of the respiratory system fall heavily on miners.

Royal Commission on Ventilation and Sanitation of Mines, 1905

The Western Australian government was ill equipped to regulate the mining boom on the goldfields in the 1890s. Water was one major problem, safety was another.

As deep underground mining developed, the associated dangers, including the dry and dusty conditions, became more evident.

In 1894, four workers died in mines. By 1899 this number had increased to 45, of whom 38 were working underground. A Royal Commission on Mining led to new laws relating to such matters as ventilation, protection of abandoned shafts, hours of employment and examination of engine drivers.

Subsequent Royal Commissions on Ventilation and Sanitation of Mines (1905) and Pulmonary Diseases Amongst Miners (1910) highlighted the high incidence of occupational diseases in the industry. Resulting legislation included a system of ‘relief’ for mine workers and, from 1925, compulsory medical examinations.

Increasingly mine safety ─ including ventilation, certificates of competency, as well as protective devices such as boots and protective hats introduced in 1939 ─ assumed high priority.

The Widow Maker

Underground miners with a ‘widow maker’ drill, Eastern Goldfields, 1890s.

Underground miners with a ‘widow maker’ drill, Eastern Goldfields, 1890s.
Image courtesy Andrew Wells

Inventions such as the pneumatic drill and dynamite made mining faster and more efficient, but the health impacts were major.

By 1900 these early mechanised drills were linked to death and disease of miners around the world. They became known as ‘widow makers’.  Many of the miners who operated them died from illnesses related to inhaling the fine dust they created.

By 1910 miners’ phthisis,  a general term for silicosis, tuberculosis, or a combination of both,  was rife. As these drills became increasingly available so too did miners’ exposure to dust. When these fine particles were inhaled deep into miners’ lungs they caused scar tissue, or fibrosis, which then made the miner more susceptible to chest diseases such as tuberculosis. Dynamite also increased miners’ exposure to silica.

The introduction of drills which operated with water to dampen the dust, helped to alleviate the dust levels though did not eliminate the health problems.

Miners using a pneumatic drill at the Golden Horseshoe Mine, c.1900

Miners using a pneumatic drill at the Golden Horseshoe Mine, c.1900
Image courtesy State Library of Western Australia 012584