An explosion in a West Virginia coal mine in 1907 claimed the lives of 362 miners, and this kind of disaster is still worryingly common more than a century later. There were 10 coal mine explosions in the United States Between 1986 and 2010 that resulted in multiple casualties, and almost all of them involved buildups of methane. Coal dust explosions are even more deadly than methane blasts, but they are usually triggered by ignited methane.
Methane is unavoidable in mines because it is created when coal is formed and released during the mining process. Controlling and monitoring methane in coal mines is therefore extremely important. Most large mining machines are fitted with monitors that shut them off when methane levels become dangerous, and water is sprayed behind cutting tools to prevent face ignitions caused by sparks. Particular care is taken in coal mines to seal off abandoned zones as methane often accumulates in these areas.
Methane in coal mines is most deadly when it triggers chain-reaction coal dust explosions. These explosions can fill mines with searing flames and toxic gases in a matter of seconds, and they are particularly deadly when they block exits and restrict air flow. Limestone powder renders coal dust inert, and it is spread regularly during mining operations. When coal dust ignites, the limestone powder absorbs much of the heat generated and prevents chain reactions.
Miners injured in underground explosions are usually entitled to workers' compensation benefits, but they could also pursue personal injury lawsuits if their employers failed to comply with National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health guidelines. Attorneys with experience in this area might suggest litigation if employers allowed conditions to develop that made death or serious injury inevitable. This is known as gross negligence, and it is an exception to workers' compensation rules that prevent injured employees from seeking civil remedies in court.