MUST READ! #undergroundmininglife - A day in the life of a female UG coal mine worker

When I tell people, my role involves holding the roof up and draining explosive gas from the seam in an underground coal mine, and I often am met with a stunned stare. I get it, that was not what you expected me to say and you don’t really know where to go from there.

Below is a day in my Underground (UG) Coal Mine life:

I’m up at 5:30am to get myself and son ready for the day, he is an expert at stealing all the fruit out of my cereal and having multiple demands such as read me this book, put on my gumboots…no, I actually want my black shoes, requesting ‘ride!’ (on my back around the kitchen and lounge in circles till mum is too puffed) and using any prop to reach the bench and pull anything he can reach off.

I get to site at 7:40am (the earliest I can there after dropping Zak to day care) and quickly chuck my UG gear on in our lovely new bath house. We have female sizes now for clothes, so they actually fit (not at our sister site yet, they still get men’s clothes) which is a Hi-vis shirt and pants. It’s a big mistake to buy overalls, this significantly complicates a trip to the toilet UG if you neglect to wear a t-shirt underneath… My boots are special order size 4, they are all in men’s sizes and this is the smallest they come, they are still a little big but nothing thick socks can’t handle! My whole UG career I have dealt with permanent blisters on my heels and have tried everything including different types of boots/gumboots, socks, foot wraps, plasters, it’s an accepted norm for me with the silver lining being my purple steel blues which are like walking on clouds. I have finally found a belt that works for someone with feminine hips, FYI ladies with hips - the large Velcro belts are the go! My hard hat is on the smallest setting which is slightly large but I bulk it up with things I may need UG like info tags, rags and a dust mask. The dust mask is too big, I have been fit tested and told its not great but adequate, so if not the paper masks then it is a very cumbersome large mask with respirators on the side so I will take that if I know I’ll be in a dusty environment for a long period of time. The gloves are size 9-11 so too big but luckily, I don’t use my hands for too many fiddly activities while UG so wearing them is uncomfortable but still operational. I can special order gloves now, but I keep forgetting as it’s a run around getting the store to put in an order, then the wait for them, then remembering to pick it up once I’m finally told they’ve arrived! I’m an average sized female by the way so I would hate to think what it’s like for a petite female.

I go out into the muster room and I need to grab a lamp from the lamp (lamp room attendant), most of the lamps are in the male’s bathhouse, but they usually keep a few smaller ones in the lamp room. If those have run out, then the lampy must go fetch me one from the bathhouse. I think they should just issue all the females a cordless lamp and have a charging station in our bathhouse, I’m working on that one! A win is that the self-rescuers are now in the muster room so its grab and go.

I tag on to the personnel board, grab some earplugs and we are ready to go!

While I wait in the muster room, I will usually have a chat to who-ever is in there. Visitors tend to walk through this way and 9 times out of 10 do a double take if I’m kitted up-it’s not that rare anymore guys!

I must wait for N/S to come up before I go down, once the cage reaches the surface, they all pile out in a flood of coal rich, black faces. I used to find this moment unnerving as many of them stare at you for an awkwardly long period of time, but now I just look for a familiar face and say hi. When you first start you just avoid all eye contact so it’s not uncomfortable / unnerving. I don’t think the muster room at shift change time ever gets much easier, but you get used to ignoring it. In my experience its worse when I worked in more remote sites as and people don’t see their families daily.

I get on the cage, there are still some chivalrous gentlemen who will open the doors for you which can be a bit awkward, but I just laugh and say thanks. The down side is they wouldn’t do that for anyone else, so you feel like they are treating you differently, but for some that’s just their way so I roll with it as I’m a believer in picking the battles I believe in. If others haven’t seen you hop into the cage sometimes the stories and conversations on the way down can be a little colourful. I have walked into many a vibrant and awkward conversation when the other people listening have sent subtle and not so subtle hints to the story teller to cut it short and it has gone unnoticed. Over time I have got creative about nipping this one in the bud gracefully and I will tell them to wrap it up if it is inappropriate. The storyteller ends up more embarrassed than me.

I get to pit bottom and head towards the Drift runner, which is a 12-seater personnel vehicle. If one needs to be serviced, I will jump on in and help, I’ve have found that if you ask whether you can help, they say no automatically and I end up sitting in the drifty feeling useless.

No one notices how close people are packed until there is a female packed in there with them, knees and arms have to touch and I can sense their fear of touching me. If I end up sitting in the back, I lean on them first, so they don’t need to think too hard about it.

The trip in is mostly uneventful, I’m focussed on looking at the roof and scanning for any changes in conditions. Once we get to the tag board, we call control via the radio to let them know who is going into what panel, I always hope the men in the panel hear so I’m not a surprise. I used to wear perfume so they could always smell me coming. It sounds odd but I have walked into a few uncomfortable scenarios and find its best if people know you will be there.

Once in the panel I usually split off from the group after agreeing on a time to meet back, I read our roof monitoring and do a panel condition inspection. I’m comfortable going solo now, but when I first started it was scary as I felt vulnerable. When you first start you are assessing the culture and feel of the place so have a lower level of trust in the guys. Out of 1000+ people UG, not everyone is going to be a nice person. It’s like in the movies when a woman walks down a dark alley in the middle of the night- everyone would be yelling don’t do it, why would go in there etc. If it were me in real life walking down that alley, I would have my car keys jammed between my fingers so if someone got me, I would stand a chance with the element of surprise. With time you feel safer but as females and generally smaller/weaker, our personal safety is always on our mind.

I will make sure I have a chat to the operators about how the conditions have been, anything unusual and I will let them know about expected conditions. This engagement is my favourite part of the job, on the surface you can lose touch with what’s going on and it’s important to connect with people underground and have those conversations. Most of the crews are great, my presence gives them a chance to ask questions of me and sometimes they chuck in a good old challenge. I’ve found people are professional when they speak to me most of the time. When you first start when you still have a white hat, people look at you like you must be an office person on a visit UG, and most won’t speak to you. But it’s rare that I don’t know at least one person in each crew, so I have not seen that in a while.

In regards to eating and drinking, I will bring snacks UG to tide me over, but I will limit my water intake before going and during my time UG. If I were on a 12-hr shift (which is rare for me now) I would bring water… but drinking water means you will need to go. And needing to go presents some real challenges. Some of the UG toilets are disgusting and as a rule I don’t usually use them, which was the first solid piece of useful advice I received from one of the best deputies I know who advised me to instead, find a quiet cut through. I always have a shewee (female urination device- it’s a godsend) on me and some toilet paper so if I can’t find a quiet place, I could go to one of the toilets without sitting on it. In addition, managing your monthly in a traditional way is exceedingly difficult now that there are 12-hour shifts. I recently discovered menstrual cups that allowed me to handle longer time periods if I cant hygienically change my form of management. I’ve experimented with lots of different types, done research and found what works best for me. I’ve organised these items for current females and new starters so that females who start in the business and are going to work UG are prepared and can overcome these limiting workplace design issues.

Rarely porn is left on the crib room table, shuttle car or MG drive. I know the workplace has a zero tolerance policy for it and are currently working to get rid of porn, it is hard as people carry it in their crib tin. If I ever find them, I rip them up into small pieces (bahaha) put them in the trash, then let the deputy know he needs to have a word with his people about it. Someone reported this on my behalf without my knowledge before and I didn’t stop hearing about it for weeks, the guys were harsh to me about it so the road could be long but will be won in the end.      

On the way out the scenario reverses really and there is not much new to add. Every now and again you get offers for back scrubs which are declined gracefully. I don’t know what the guys think we do in the bathhouse, but we now have a dirty and clean side and doors that lock (Hooray!) so it’s just a shower and change. When we are showering, we sometimes need to lock the door as it opens directly into the corridor. I take my clothes into the shower block and change so I avoid this as I hate blocking access for the other ladies to the only female toilet at site. There is a disabled toilet directly beside the bathhouse that they can use but we do have a wheelchair dependant person onsite, so he gets priority on that room. There are never enough female toilets, story of our lives really!

I have such vision and enthusiasm for a future where these seemingly simple things are no longer limiting the females who work in UG coal. The work is exciting, the scale and operation of the gear and the way we work blows your mind and I love what I do. Good workplace design is an uplifting, unconscious soundtrack to live your days by and we could do better.

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