People use the phrase “canary in the coal mine” to refer to early warning signs of subtle danger. The term stems from the former literal use of small birds to detect one of the most significant risks that miners faced while on the job.

The act of mining could, in theory, wind up breaching enclosed pockets of gas deep under the earth. When that happens, those gases may begin to trickle or flood into the workspace occupied by miners. If those gas concentrations reach dangerous levels, the workers could wind up sickened or even losing consciousness and possibly dying. Captive birds helped prevent that from happening.

The canary brought down into the mines would expire well before the gases would cause permanent harm to workers, which is perhaps sad but a surprisingly astute way to save human lives. These days, while the technology involved in detecting gas leaks and protecting minors may have improved, the risk is still there for those who work deep underground. 

Modern protections include alarm systems and air packs

Modern mines can have sensors and other devices placed in areas where workers are present to detect gases as they accumulate. There are big devices for spaces and even wearable units for individual workers.

Companies can also invest in state-of-the-art communication and alarm systems that can warn workers of impending danger, allowing for the use of protective equipment or the evacuation of a job site before anyone gets hurt. Mining companies can also provide workers with air packs, which can be a critical, life-saving piece of gear if a worker is far below the surface when they get exposed to dangerous levels of gases like methane and carbon dioxide. Sadly, even these can sometimes fail.

Even with better protections, workers can still get hurt

While chemical sensors and alarms are certainly more reliable than a bird in a cage, modern technology does not completely remove the risk that coal miners face on the job. Those who get hurt or who wind up sickened and unable to work during their recovery will have the option of seeking workers’ compensation benefits to replace their lost wages and cover medical costs.

In the event of a tragic outcome where a worker dies, workers’ compensation can protect their family members by providing benefits comparable to the long-term disability benefits the worker would have received if they had survived.