Historically, December has been a particularly tragic month in U.S. coal mining.

Considered the worst mining accident ever, explosions at West Virginia’s Monongah Nos. 6 and 8 in 1906 claimed 362 lives. Twenty-seven miners perished in an underground fire caused by a faulty air compressor at the Wilberg Mine in Utah in 1984. And a blast that rocked the South Mountain No. 3 mine in Virginia in 1992 killed eight miners, leading investigators to discover that improper ventilation, examinations and rock dusting contributed to the deadly accident.

With cold weather engulfing much of the nation, and distractions overtaking many of us during the busy holiday season, we at the Mine Safety and Health Administration understand all too well the unique hazards the mining industry faces.

Mine operators and miners should pay special attention to seasonal changes that affect both surface and underground work environments. Not only does the risk of underground coal mine explosions increase in the winter, hazards associated with ice and snow that collect at surface facilities and preparation plants also play a part.

When cold weather causes barometric pressure to drop, methane gas can migrate more easily into the coal mine atmosphere, increasing the risk of an explosion. Dry winter air means drier conditions underground, making it more likely for coal dust to suspend in the mine’s atmosphere and create conditions that can cause an explosion.  

Be vigilant. Properly ventilate the mine, apply liberal amounts of rock dust and conduct frequent examinations. At surface operations, be mindful of limited visibility, slippery walkways, and freezing and thawing highwalls. Remove snow and ice from walkways, thoroughly examine highwalls, and apply salt and sand where needed.

A mining fatality is tragic no matter what time of year, but when disaster strikes during the holidays, it’s especially heartbreaking. I was at Wilberg in the aftermath of the fire. I remember all too well the pain endured by the families of the 27 victims who, in the days leading up to Christmas, were forced put their holiday plans on hold while they awaited news of their loved ones’ fates.

My wish for all miners and their families is the opportunity to put in their shift and return home, safe and healthy, to celebrate this holiday and many more.