Tuesday, March 2, 2010  
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Quote of the Week
“We’re non-profit and it’s definitely showing.”
- Wendy Zack  
- on the Historical Society’s   
financials at their AGM   

 

Looking Back - John KinnearIt cannot be said enough times and in enough places that modern coal mining’s safety record is something to be proud of. It stands heads above most other industries in Canada and the safety programs put in place at the Elk Valley mines are as rigorous and thorough as can be found anywhere in the world.  There is a very concerted and diligent effort to reduce and eliminate hazards at the mines and injuries are fairly rare. Occupational Health and Safety committees work closely with the management at all Elk Valley coal mines to ensure the modern coal miner works in a safe environment.
This was not always the case. There was a time in the Crowsnest Pass when injuries and fatalities were an accepted part of a miner’s life. This was back when pretty well all coal was mined underground from Hillcrest on the Alberta side to Coal Creek on the British Columbia side.
Pete Rotella put it simply in 1967 after his amazing survival of the Balmer North blast that killed 15 men. Rotella was blown clean out of the mine and landed in the trees in the Michel valley bottom. Pete said: “A mine is a mine. You go in; you never know if you are going to come out”.
The most poignant evidence of how is was back then risk-wise can be found in a series of 14” by 22” ledger books in the Crows Nest Pass Coal Co. archives stored in the basement of Fernie’s city hall. They are a remarkable compilation of accident records diligently kept over five decades by the company. The ledgers were printed with columns specifically laid out for this purpose and detail everything from occupation, nationality, nature of injury, cause of accident and so on. Probably the most disturbing column in each two-page spread is the one labelled:”Fatal or Non-Fatal”. The non-fatal's were not indicated as there were so many of them so the word Fatal in an otherwise empty column jumps out at you.
It is an interesting exercise to revisit these books and look at the nature and cause of accidents as it gives one a better appreciation of the hazards these men endured. The men who were charged with filling out these books faced for the most part an adjective challenge that would leave most medical types stymied. The range of injuries and severity of accidents includes almost every description in Webster’s dictionary.
They include the likes of: severed, crushed, sprained, bruised, cut,frozen, fractured, twisted, ruptured, punctured and so on. With these descriptions went almost every single part of the human body, be it toes, legs, arms, ribs, ankles, backs, hands, eyes at infinitum.
Never in the history of Canadian labor have men faced so many hazards, as did those in our coal mines. Also never in the history of Canadian labour did working men find so many ways to get injured. One can turn to any single page of these pain chronicles and find more ways to get hurt than one can imagine.
 
As you run your finger down the cause column you will come across statements like:”fall of rock, squeezed by car, tripped on rail, struck with pick (ouch), thrown off trip, cut with saw and the always dreaded “cave-in”or “explosion”. The word “caught” shows up a lot as in: “caught between bumpers, caught by coupling or caught by rope. Struck was also heavily used as there are many things one can be struck with in a mine, be it a piece of roof rock, an axe, a timber or a flying wedge. Probably the most painful struck one comes across has to do with the horses or mules used underground. Miners endured bites, trampling, kicks, toes being stomped and inevitably being dragged by a creature that was really unhappy about living in the dark and being forced to work all day.
Here is one of 2,672 entries out of one of the ledgers that spans the years 1914 to 1923: “ Entry #3796- Date: May 29, 1916-Time: 7:15 PM-Name: Brown, Benjamin-Work #2863- Occupation Bellboy-Location #1 East-Nature of Injury: Compound fracture right forearm, severely lacerated hand and dislocated left shoulder-Nationality: Welsh-Age: 16-Marital Status: Single-Cause of Accident: Found lying in center of tracks-Date Returned to Work (never did)”.
Oh yes, I forgot to mention the nationality thing. Ben was classified as Welsh, one of dozens of nationalities listed in this ledger. They included countrymen labelled as: Galician, Austrian, Hungarian Polish, German, Slovak, Russian, Belgian, French and Ukrainian. My particular nationality is put down as Scotch (not Scottish) a mistake quite common back then.  Mind you, a drink of Scotch was probably in order for a Scottish miner who had endured the viciousness of a well-directed hoof.
After a while as you cruise through the lists they begin to blur into one huge legacy of pain. “Pick went into knee. Nail went into foot. Timber rolled onto hand. Coal fell into eye. Fingers squeezed between props.” One finds oneself looking for anything unusual to provide some relief from the endless scroll of things that went wrong. Like Charles O’Neil, a horseshoer, who was “driving nail into hind shoe when horse kicked and nail went into thumb”. Doesn’t that one just make you wince?
I guess the most unlikely accident I was able to find was that which befell Joe Fratenna an Italian who just about took a finger off when “knife slipped when cutting cheese”.
Whether it was the washhouse, the stables, the mines, the tipple, the machine shop or any other part of the Crowsnest Pass mines it seems that personal injury was always lurking just around the corner. The few miners living today that survived this endless stream of wrong place at the wrong time no doubt carry the physical marks of this legacy, battle scars of just about the toughest men ever to walk into a mine. 
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