Mine safety once relied on bright yellow birds with songs as faint as a grasshopper. Canaries were used into the late 1900s to alert miners to the presence of poisonous gas underground .
Following a mine fire or explosion, mine rescuers would descend into the depths of the mine, carrying a canary in a small wooden or metal cage. If the bird swayed noticeably on his perch before falling, that signaled that conditions underground were unsafe, prompting a hasty return to the surface.
On December 6, the nation will honor those bright yellow birds that saved the lives of countless miners and pay tribute to the sacrifices workers made, both past and present, on National Miners Day.
National Miners Day History
The Mine Safety Health Administration (MSHA) and Congress designated Dec. 6 as National Miners Day in commemoration of the worst industrial mine accident in American history. On 1907, an explosion at the No. 6 and No. 8 mines in Monongah, West Virginia, killed 362 miners.
“Miners and their families have achieved, provided, and sacrificed so much for the betterment of their fellow Americans,” notes the Senate resolution designating the holiday. “And in spite of dramatic improvements in health and safety, miners still today risk life and limb in their labors.”
Today, more than 350,000 miners extract dozens of minerals from the earth, including coal, gold, copper, silver, granite, limestone, salt, and gravel. These efforts generate electricity, help pave our highways and bridges, and create essential components to the computers and electronics Americans use daily. Thousands of consumer goods, including cosmetics, toothpaste, and even kitty litter, exist thanks to the hard work of miners.
On National Miners Day, MSHA salutes the men and women–and canaries of bygone days– who labor in the tunnels at the depths of the earth.