A coal miner can perform a number of tasks around a coal mine, depending on the type of mine where he or she works. Despite significant safety improvements, coal mining continues to be an extremely dangerous occupation, and no matter what kind of work a coal miner does, it's necessary to be physically fit in addition to being attentive and cautious. Being aware of the surroundings in a mine can save lives, making alertness an important part of the job description for miners.
In surface mining operations, a coal miner can operate the heavy equipment which is used to strip away the topsoil from a seam of coal, drill holes in the coal for the placement of explosives, or work as a blaster, setting explosive charges to break up coal seams so that they can be removed. Other coal miners in surface operations work with the equipment which is used to remove the coal loosened by blasting operations. Coal miners usually train to do this work on the job, although some mining companies offer classroom training opportunities as well as practice opportunities in a non-working mine so that miners can get comfortable with the work.
When a company needs to mine underground to access coal, a coal miner can be part of the crew which lays out the mine and provides reinforcement and support to prevent collapses. He or she can also work on the teams which actually break up and remove the coal, using heavy equipment rather than the iconic shovels many people associate with coal mining. Coal miners can also work as safety inspectors, making sure that conditions in the mine are safe and addressing safety concerns as they arise.
A skilled coal miner can work as a supervisor, overseeing work by other employees. Working as a supervisor can be less dangerous because supervisors are not necessarily in the thick of the work, but it also comes with major responsibilities, as supervisors must look out for the safety of the employees who work for them.
Coal mining is very dirty work, and it exposes people to a number of risks. Inhaled coal dust can cause lung problems, for example, and miners can be injured by heavy equipment, vehicle collisions, explosions, gas leaks, and collapses. Many coal miners are unionized so that they can enjoy more protections as workers and so that they can access assistance from the union if they are injured and need medical, legal, or financial help.