Coal Hogs Work Safe

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
Ronnie Johnson still remembers the first time he went underground. He and a handful of other coal miners piled into a little trailer and descended into the mine.

Ronnie Johnson:
We were going down through there, hitting bumps and running over little rocks and stuff and I remember laying in that little trailer and the roof was actually so close to me that the bib of my hard hat would almost hit the roof.

Roman Mars:
When they got down to the bottom, Ronnie’s boss handed him a wrench and told him to open a nearby waterline, but someone had forgotten to cut the water off.

Ronnie Johnson:
Like water just started spraying me. It just sprayed all in my face and all over me. I was sopping wet and I just like fell up against the rib, you know, the wall of coal. And I thought to myself, “What have I done?”

Irina Zhorov:
As a new miner in a dangerous industry, Ronnie had to go through an intensive orientation process before this first trip underground.

Roman Mars:
That’s producer Irina Zhorov.

Irina Zhorov:
Ronnie is actually my partner’s father. He lives in Northern Alabama and on a recent visit as the family cooked dinner, Ronnie and I went out to his workshop where he likes to sit and smoke with only the dogs and cicadas for company.

Ronnie Johnson:
There’s somewhere else you want to do it? Here or somewhere? I don’t care.

Irina Zhorov:
We can just go back there. He told me about how he sat through 40 hours of training and safety classes before going down into the mines. At the end, he was issued a hard hat that identified him as a rookie.

Ronnie Johnson:
The hard hat was yellow. You stood out from here to the road, you know? It was terrible. It was terrible.

Irina Zhorov:
Was it terrible because you’d get like crap from the other men?

Ronnie Johnson:
Oh yeah, yeah. Everybody knew you were a rookie, you know? Just practical jokes, just nothing serious, but…

Irina Zhorov:
In addition to this terrible yellow hard hat, the safety man in his mine also gave him a sticker.

Ronnie Johnson:
Yeah, it was this sticker right here.

Irina Zhorov:
It’s a red rhombus, about two by two inches with a reflective white center.

Ronnie Johnson:
A-B-C and he says, “Always Be Careful.” But A-B-C was a company name, Alabama Byproducts Corporation.

Irina Zhorov:
Ronnie got a few of these stickers back then. He put one in a box and one on his brand new yellow hat.

Roman Mars:
This was just the beginning of Ronnie’s sticker collecting. After 34 years as a miner, he now has several photo albums filled with thousands of stickers. Some are inside jokes, some commemorate big events at work.

Irina Zhorov:
Lots of other coal miners across the country have collections just like Ronnie’s. Miners use these stickers for safety and for communication and as a kind of currency down in the mines.

Ronnie Johnson:
It was just what coal miners did, you know? Kids collect baseball cars. In the coal mines that’s all you had really to collect, was coal mining stickers. So…

Archive Tape:
“One of the darkest of all working environments underground mines.”

Roman Mars:
Since the beginning of underground mining, one of the biggest dangers in the workplace has been the darkness.

Archive Tape:
“Coal miners of today would shudder at the thought of using some of the early methods of coal mine illumination. Well into the era of industrial society, miners were still using open flames as their only source of life.”

Roman Mars:
The darkness makes accidents more likely and even though technology has improved to make mines brighter and safer, it’s still an issue. The culture of mining to a certain degree has been shaped by the level of risk involved.

Elaine Cullen:
Work cultures have very strong cultures, especially ones that face danger like mining, firefighting, police work, the military, deep-sea fishing, et cetera.

Irina Zhorov:
This is Elaine Cullen. She’s an occupation ethnographer and she spent a lot of time with miners, actually down in the mines with them.

Elaine Cullen:
Mining has a very strong culture. I think the reason is because people who work underground are well aware of the fact that every day you go in, you don’t know if you’re coming out.

Irina Zhorov:
The first time Cullen went down into a mine, she was told that she had to have something reflective on her hard hat. There’s a lot of heavy machinery moving around from buses to the sheers, roof bolters, and other tools used to extract coal.

Elaine Cullen:
People get hit, they get run over, they get crushed by mobile equipment.

Irina Zhorov:
And so reflective material increases the visibility of the people underground.

Elaine Cullen:
We put strips of reflective tape on the back of our hard hats, but then it became pretty obvious that other people had other things on their hard hats and these were stickers.

Irina Zhorov:
The stickers had originally been little advertisements that the manufacturers of mining equipment handed out even before the late 1960s when mining safety laws started requiring reflective materials underground, miners used those stickers to stay visible to each other.

Roman Mars:
But as time passed, the stickers evolved. They became more personal and started to tell miner’s stories and the mine companies themselves started printing stickers for their workers.

Irina Zhorov:
They went from simple ads to signaling and identity.

Elaine Cullen:
And these are sort of… they’re symbols. Symbols of the mining industry and that you’re part of it. That you’re a miner.

Irina Zhorov:
After a year in the Alabama mine, Ronnie swapped out his yellow hard hat for a black one, which meant he was no longer a rookie. With that came more stickers. The stickers always came in twos. One went on his hard hat, which he actually brought out to show me. So where’s your six inches of reflective tape?

Ronnie Johnson:
I probably covered all mine up with stickers. You can see all the Alabama stickers on it.

Irina Zhorov:
The other sticker he for his growing collection. A miner showed Ronnie how to keep the stickers organized. So each week he’d sit down and put the new stickers in an album. What’s this one?

Ronnie Johnson:
That’s the grim reaper it looks like, don’t it? It says UNWIA. That’s a union sticker. I’m sure it’s got something to do with black lung.

Roman Mars:
Managers and the safety man at his mine gave him stickers with the mine name on them and his union gave them stickers with union messages on them. One of his favorite stickers has the state of Alabama outlined in red and inside it says Alabama coal miner.

Ronnie Johnson:
There’s kind of a pride thing there, you know? Alabama coal miner.

Roman Mars:
As he gained more experience, he got stickers commemorating his accomplishments.

Irina Zhorov:
He worked at a company early on that counted the amount of coal mined by the number of cars filled during a shift. Something like a hundred cars was okay, but Ronnie has a sticker that says his team mined 150 cars in one shift.

Ronnie Johnson:
And then this sticker says ‘150 Car Club’ with the little Playboy bunny on there.

Roman Mars:
He also has one commemorating 225 cars in a shift, which is a big deal.

Ronnie Johnson:
You have a big run and the next night you’re outside and all the guys that didn’t have such a good run or whatever and your boss is going around giving you these stickers and it was just a kind of an incentive thing.

Roman Mars:
In the 1960s and 1970s, a number of major mine safety laws were passed in the U.S. and Elaine Cullen started working at a new agency that was responsible for studying and enforcing safety in the mines. For years she researched mining culture. In the two thousands, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, a federal agency, hired her to develop a safety training program for coal miners. By that time she knew who she was dealing with so she knew she might be facing some skepticism from the miners she was trying to reach.

Elaine Cullen:
I don’t look like a miner. I’m a woman and most of them are not. So getting them to work with me, especially when I was a representative of the federal government and they are a little leery to work with government.

Irina Zhorov:
But Elaine had seen that the miners were really into these stickers and she figured she could use them to gain their trust and to convey messages about safety.

Roman Mars:
But she knew just putting “work safe” on a sticker wouldn’t cut it. She needed something to grab the miner’s attention.

Elaine Cullen:
I mean we were working out in Eastern Kentucky.

Roman Mars:
It was a mining community with deep cultural ties to coal and she started to notice something. She’d be walking along with the safety guy –

Elaine Cullen:
And as we would approach another miner, he would squeal like a pig. I finally asked him, I said, “Jessie, what’s going on here? Why are they doing that?” And he said, “Oh, they’re just saying they know I’m a coal hog.” And I said, “What is a coal hog?” And he said, “Coal hog is hungry for coal. Greedy for coal. Can’t ever get enough.” Meaning that you’re a good miner.

Roman Mars:
So Elaine took the idea and designed sticker with a big muscular pig with a hard hat on and it says, “Coal hogs work safe.”

Elaine Cullen:
So what we were doing is putting those two ideas together that you can be a coal hog, but you can also work safely.

Roman Mars:
The miners loved it.

Elaine Cullen:
Oh gosh. I think we printed 3000 to begin with. I have one little packet left that I’m kind of keeping as a keepsake.

Irina Zhorov:
Some of Cullen’s other designs were duds. Her team made one with a dead canary. Canaries were once used to check for bad air in a mine. But that was a long time ago. And the younger miners didn’t get it.

Roman Mars:
Other stickers, catering to the raunchy humor in the mines, didn’t pass muster with her bosses and the federal government. For example, they designed one sticker to remind miners to check for gas in the mines.

Elaine Cullen:
So what this one was the back end of a donkey and had that donkey kind of looking back at you and it said, “Don’t be an ass, check for gas.” And kind of had this little cloud coming out.

Roman Mars:
Gas can be really dangerous underground and donkeys were once used to carry coal out of the mines.

Elaine Cullen:
No, oh boy, the folks in Washington didn’t like that one, but the miners loved it. Yeah.

Roman Mars:
Unless Elaine visited your mine, it’d be hard to get one of these stickers. A lot of the stickers were specialized or localized depending on what organization or company designed them. That’s part of what made collecting them fun.

Lennie Hanner:
I have over 26,000 different stickers in my collection and I’ve kind of come to believe that you either are a collector or you’re not. And if you’re not a collector, you just don’t get it and if you are a collector, you just really can’t help yourself.

Irina Zhorov:
This is Lennie Hanner.

Lennie Hanner:
And I’m a coal miner from Southern Illinois.

Irina Zhorov:
Lenny has worked in coal mines for 40 years. He’s a major sticker collector. At the height of his collecting in the 1980s, he’d exchanged stickers with other collectors across the country and go to sticker swaps almost every weekend. Those are meetups where miners exchange pieces.

Roman Mars:
Lennie says unique stickers were like currency in the mines, a way to buy or sell favors and help. For instance, say you’re a trucker and you rolled up to the mines with a big load of supplies, you asked some of the miners to help you unload.

Lennie Hanner:
The first thing they wanted to know is do you have any stickers?

Roman Mars:
Without stickers, the miners wouldn’t exactly rush to help.

Lennie Hanner:
So they all learned that they had stickers in that truck when they arrived and they tend to get unloaded a whole lot faster that way.

Roman Mars:
Lennie still works for a mining company, but above ground these days. He lives in an old mining town in a house that was once owned by a mining company and he’s got a full room devoted to mining memorabilia.

Lennie Hanner:
I’m married to the most understanding woman in the world.

Roman Mars:
He keeps his stickers in 27 albums organized by type of sticker. The ones printed by mining companies, the ones equipment manufacturers gave out, the ones focused on safety and union issues. Some of them are especially sentimental.

Lennie Hanner:
I have a sticker that I got from a friend of mine and he recently passed away and I have just a couple stickers in my collection that really make me think of him when I see them.

Irina Zhorov:
The sticker albums function just like photo albums, reminding miners of their milestones and stories.

Lennie Hanner:
They are just little pieces of our history, of our past little mementos a guess, maybe like a postcard. If you travel that you might pick up a postcard that reminds you of something from the past. We can just see our past mining history there on the pages of the album.

Roman Mars:
Of course, just like with photos, some of the darker memories don’t end up in the album.

Irina Zhorov:
In 2011, after more than 30 years in the mines, my partner’s dad, Ronnie, had an accident. We were living a thousand miles away and paced around in my living room as news trickled in. We eventually learned that his hand got pulled into a machine and it took a finger. Down in Alabama, he was rushed to a hospital. He was told to call his wife Deborah.

Roman Mars:
At first, he didn’t want to call what happened in the mine, stayed in the mine. But the nurse insisted and Deborah happened to be nearby.

Ronnie Johnson:
I remember Deborah looking at me when she came in the room and said, “Ron Johnson, how’d you get so dirty?” I’d been getting that way for years and I guess she had never saw me. I had on my rubber boots and my face was all black and my hand was all wrapped.

Irina Zhorov:
He never really shared much about his life in the mine with his family.

Ronnie Johnson:
I guess they had never saw me like that. I didn’t tell them what I went through.

Roman Mars:
The sticker albums stacked up in his cozy house only tell their stories to those who know how to read them.

Irina Zhorov:
Ronnie says before he lost his finger, he’d gone 31 years without spending a night in the hospital. He’d never ridden in an ambulance and never had an accident in the mine that made him lose work hours.

Ronnie Johnson:
I caught up for all those 31 years in one night though, you know?

Roman Mars:
Ronnie never got a sticker for that.

Credits

Production

Producer Irina Zhorov spoke with Alabama coal miner Ronnie Johnson; occupational ethnographer Elaine Cullen; and Lennie Hanner, a coal miner from Illinois. All images by Irina Zhorov unless otherwise noted. Coda on adaptive mine reuse with Kurt Kohlstedt.

Music

Original music by Sean Real

Comments (6)

Share

  1. C. A. Hinton

    Great episode! Underground spaces also house neutrino detectors. One of my favorites is ‘Super-K’ in Japan. The images of thousands of fragile detectors are awesome.

  2. Shane Maxemow

    Fun fact, It’s against safety standards to put stickers on hard hats because if it cracks the stickers can cover those defects. Its a common practice on construction sites as well.

  3. Doug

    As cool as the stickers are, I’d love to see the pictures/videos of these abandoned/unabandoned mines you talked about at the end. Not seeing them on the 99PI homepage though.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

All Categories

Playlist