The ethics of keeping underground miners safe

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Cole Finton (

The main two types of mining coal currently used are Surface Mining and Underground Mining. While the two methods are similar in that they have the same goal and the same end result, to produce coal, they are still vastly different. Surface Mining involves the excavation of vast areas of land to reach veins of coal that are close to the surface, while Underground Mining is the process of retrieving coal from veins that are buried deep underground [1]. These underground veins of coal stretch great distances, requiring miners to follow them horizontally to maximize the coal output of the mine. Some of these mines have tunnels extending upwards of 5 miles to the coal face [2] This can be a dangerous game, as these mines travel horizontally through heterogeneous rock formations that don’t always have the same structural properties. It is up to structural and mining engineers to design support systems that not only ensure the safety of the miners who work in these mines, but also maximize the amount of coal that can be extracted from such deep veins.
Coal-fired power plants currently account for 37 percent of the United State’s electricity production [3]. Surface mining currently accounts for 67% of coal mining in the United States [4].Due to our reliance on these Coal plants, at some point in the near future there will come a time when all of the coal that can be extracted from Surface Mining has already been combusted. This means that all the coal that is left to burn is located deep under the surface of the earth. Due to the inability of alternative forms of energy to provide the electricity we need every day, we have no choice but to extract this coal from deep veins.

As a young mining engineer working for one of the most preeminent companies in deep vein mining, I am the head a team responsible for the process of maintaining the structural integrity of the mine and to ensure the safety of the miners while also maximizing the coal output of the mine. With every decision that is made regarding where to dig, we must take into account how it will affect the output of coal and how the resultant shape of the mine will hold up to the stresses put on it by the surrounding rock formations. Unfortunately, we are constantly being pressured by our boss to extract more and more coal from the ground because, as a private company, our ultimate goal is to make as much money as possible.

We currently have a deep vein mine in Pennsylvania that has surpassed the depth of any coalmine in the past. Working at such extreme depths poses a great deal of challenges never before faced by mining engineers. Current geological tests and surveys show that the mine we are currently operating is quickly running out of coal; enough remains to keep the mine operational for approximately 9 more months. However, a few members of my team have come to me with a few concerns involving the continuation of the operation of this mine.

The most troublesome of these concerns brought to me regards the inadequacy of the current ventilation system to supply enough oxygen to the miners. The Mine Safety and Health Administration states that “Breathable air supplied by compressed air from cylinders, fans, or compressors shall provide a minimum flow rate of 12.5 cubic feet per minute of breathable air for each person”[5]. My team member informs me that if the mine were to continue any deeper, this regulation would not be met. According to Jeffery Kravitz of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, “Coal mines often produce methane gas”, a very volatile gas that must be removed to prevent toxic buildups and dangerous ignition [6].

Since correcting this violation involves additional cost, I am required to approach my boss as to how we will fix the issue. Troublingly, he does not seem to view this breach of safety as an issue at all, since the mine will be closing within the year. He has directed me to act as if the issue has been fixed so that the mine will pass inspection. Additionally, he threatens me with suspension or being fired if I try to raise it as a concern to his superior.

If I were to act directly as my boss instructed, I would be violating several “Codes of Ethics”. These codes are set forth by the National Society of Professional Engineers and they outline how “Engineers must perform under a standard of professional behavior that requires adherence to the highest principles of ethical conduct” [7].

By becoming a professional engineer, I have accepted the Fundamental Canons of the National Society of Professional Engineers’ Code of Ethics for Engineers as guiding me in the decision making process whenever I am faced with an ethical dilemma. This document holds Fundamental Canons that are designed to provide easily follow-able guidelines that are applicable in many ethical dilemmas.

Safety Canon
The first of these Canons states that “Engineers, in the fulfillment of their professional duties, shall hold paramount the safety, health, and welfare of the public” [7]. If I were to act directly as my boss instructed me to, I would be defying the regulations set forth by the Mine Safety and Health Administration that are specifically designed to keep miners safe. In defying these regulations, I am putting all of the miners that enter the mine in danger of oxygen deprivation.
Deception Canon
Another Fundamental Canon that will influence my future actions outlined in the Code of Ethics for Engineers declares “Engineers… shall avoid deceptive acts” [7]. If I were to hide the fact that the mine has inadequate ventilation, I would be knowingly engaging in a deceitful act. It is up to the engineer in every situation to decide what is deceitful and what is not.
In addition to being required to act in accordance to the National Society of Professional Engineers’ Code of Ethics for Engineers, as a mining engineer I am also bound to abide by the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration’s Code of Ethics. I must always keep in mind both sets of codes, as many times both of them are applicable in the same situation. For instance, the Code of Ethics states that “Members shall comply with all laws and government regulations…” [8]. Applying this knowledge to my particular scenario, if I were to intentionally not upgrade the ventilation system, I would not only be breaking the law but I would also be violating this particular section of the Code of Ethics.

Sometimes when multiple Codes of Ethics are applicable, some of the basic principles are the same for each. This is particularly true for this case, as both the National Society for Professional Engineers and the Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration advocate and require engineers to “conduct themselves… lawfully so as to enhance the honor, reputation, and usefulness of the profession” [7] [8]. If I were to break the law, I would not be holding true to the codes of ethics that I have sworn to uphold.

Along with it being unethical to hide inadequacies such as my boss directs, it can also be quite dangerous and have catastrophic effects. Take, for instance, the tragedy that happened in the San Jose mine in Chile that occurred in 2010. The San Jose mine was an underground mine used to produce copper and gold that collapsed, trapping 33 miners for 69 days 2,962 feet below ground [9]. While this mine is not a coal producing mine, the basic concepts are easily transferrable. When man ventures underground in digging mines, it is absolutely vital that their safety is held to utmost importance. Proper ventilation and structural integrity go hand-in-hand, as both of which ensure that the miners stay out of danger as much as possible.
By realizing that there was no way to handle it on his own, the engineer who brought the ventilation inadequacy to light abided properly to one of the Fundamental Canons of the National Society of Professional Engineers’ Code of Ethics. Specifically, the second Canon, which states that “Engineers… shall perform services only in areas of their competence” [7]. He realized that the assignment he was tasked with was beyond his responsibility, and he approached his supervisor about it to seek assistance in making the proper decision. Had he not come to me with the issue, and just assumed that nothing bad would come of it, he would have been violating the Fundamental Canons that he had sworn to uphold.
While the Codes of Ethics that I have sworn to uphold may help guide me in the decision making process, they are by no means a black and white process for what decisions to make and when. There are aspects, outside of simply engineering, that I must take into account. For one, if I am to go “over the head” of my direct supervisor, I run the risk of losing my job.

It is very important to analyze and look at all aspects of an issue before a decision can be made. While on the surface the decision seems to be an easy one, go to a higher power regarding the deepening of the mine and concerns over ventilation, there are many personal ramifications that could wreak havoc on my life personally if I were to do that. I could lose my job, my livelihood. Without a source of income, it would be impossible to pay bills and other basic amenities. Additionally, if I did try to go over his head and he did fire me, it would be hard to explain it to future employers; further hindering my economic and political success.

If I were to do as my boss says, I wouldn’t be faced with such a personal dilemma. However, the ethical dilemma I would face is much more severe. If something were to go wrong and the methane gas were to build up and ignite, I would be the one responsible for any deaths and destruction caused by my inaction. The ramifications from such a catastrophic event on my personal life would be much greater than if I didn’t comply with my boss. Not only would I lose my job, I would also be stripped of my professional engineer title for violating National Society of Professional Engineers’ Code of Ethics [10]. This would make it nearly impossible for me to obtain another job with a different firm. Also, weighing on my mind as I make the decision as to how to proceed is that engineers are legally responsible for their actions [11]. In application to this scenario, it means that I am legally obligated and held responsible for whatever decision I make.

So, in this ethically charged scenario, the proper decision is clear; I must directly disobey my direct superior and report to someone of greater authority to report my findings. Whether or not I am fired for these actions is irrelevant, as I know that I have made the most ethical and moral decision I could make.


[1] University of Kentucky. (2013). “Methods of Mining.” Kentucky Geological Survey. (Online Article).

[2] “Coal Mining.” (2008). The Science Channel. How Do They Do It?. (Video).

[3] Independent Statistics and Analysis. (2013). “U.S. Electricity Generation by Energy Source.” U.S. Energy Information Administration. (Website).

[4] World Coal Association. (2012). “Coal Mining.” Types of Coal Exraction. (Online Article).

[5] United States Department of Labor. (2009). “Code of Federal Regulations.” Mine Safety and Health Administration. (Website).

[6] W. Parry, R. Rettner. (2010). “Chile Mine Collapse.” LiveScience. (Online Article).

[7] National Society of Professional Engineers. (2007). “Code of Ethics for Engineers.”

[8] Society for Mining, Metallurgy, and Exploration. (2010). “Code of Ethics.” SME Registered Member.

[9] British Broadcasting Corporation. (2010). “Jubilation as Chilean Mine Rescue Ends.” BBC News: Latin America and Caribbean. (Online Article).

[10] S. Starrett. (2013). “Engineers Face Ethical Dilemmas.” Leadership and Management in Engineering. (Online Article).

[11] C. Forister. (2003).”Ethics and Civil Engineering: Past, Present, and Future.” Journal of Professional Issues in Engineering Education and Practice. (Print Article) Vol. 129, No. 3. pp. 129-130

I would like to thank Christin Hydeman, my advisor for showing me that proper time management is necessary. I would also like to thank my friends Mike Scandrol, Mark Vavithes, Eliot Meeker, and Dan Bednarczyk for helping me brainstorm ideas on how to approach my topic. Finally, I would like to thank my roommate Sharif Abdelbaky for putting up with my complaints about this paper for the past two weeks.

University of Pittsburgh, Swanson School of Engineering

Submission Date 2013-10-29

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