Mining Accidents and Worker Safety in the early 1900s


Here is a miner drilling underground in one of the Calumet & Hecla Mines, Calumet, Mich. Notice how he balances precariously on a makeshift scaffold. (Photo circa 1915, courtesy of the Michigan Tech Archives Keweenaw Digital Archives)

Worker safety, particularly in the face of technological changes, became a major grievance of copper miners leading up to the strike of 1913. Mine accidents during the years leading up to the strike could range from minor injuries, such as a temporary loss of hearing due to blasting and drilling, all the way up to death, such as in the case of Frank Spehar of Tamarack, MI who feel down a mineshaft, over 4,000 feet deep, to an instant death. [1] Worker safety was especially important in the shift from the two-man to the one-man pneumatic drill which took place during this era. Urged by scientific management and the desire to eliminate excess labor costs, big companies eagerly championed the one-man drill in the Michigan copper mines. [2] Dubbed the “widow maker,” the one-man drill was an important piece of technology that saved money for companies by decreasing the amount of labor needed underground. However, the installation of the new drills also increased worker concerns about injury and fatalities. A one-man drill meant there wasn’t always a fellow worker nearby, meaning reduced safety when working alone, especially on shaft scaffolds and makeshift board bridges, which can be seen in the photo above. Falls, injuries, and fatalities were common in most of the major mines of the Copper Country during the early twentieth century.

Concerns about worker safety translated to other mining industries as well since health and safety concerns found their way into other organized labor conflicts across the country. For instance, in Pennsylvania’s Westmorland County coal mines, worker fatalities and the environmental hazards of the work, like the potential for cracking shaft structures or underground gas leaks were real concerns leading up to the strike of 1910-1911. [3] In the Westmorland County mines, there were over two hundred mining fatalities in the 2 years preceding the strike, so worker safety was a key concern. [4] Mining, no matter what ore or element it sought, was dirty, dangerous, sometimes fatal work and the hazardous realities of mine work often found its way onto the agenda when mine workers started to organize.


                [1] Michigan Technological University Archives, “Grievances,” Tumult and Tragedy: Michigan’s 1913-1914 Copper Strike, (accessed April 4, 2013).

                [2] Larry Lankton, Hollowed Ground: Copper Mining and Community Building on Lake Superior, 1840s-1990s (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2010),154.

                [3] Judith McDonough, “Worker Solidarity, Judicial Oppression, and Police Repression in the Westmorland County, Pennsylvania Coal Miners’ Strike, 1910-11,” Pennsylvania History 64, no. 3 (Summer 1997), 384-406.

                [4] Ibid., 387.


One thought on “Mining Accidents and Worker Safety in the early 1900s

  1. Pingback: Copper Country History Linked to by Daily Kos | Copper Country History

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