Future Professions: Miner
Every last Sunday in August, Russia celebrates Miner’s Day. How has the advent of the digital age affected the earnings, working conditions, and prospects of the riskiest profession in mining?
At the end of August 1935, Alexey Stakhanov, a miner and two face-fitters held a record-breaking shift, mining 102 metric tons of coal - 14.5 times the norm. This was the beginning of the Stakhanov movement that went beyond the industry. To commemorate these events, in 1947, the Ministry of Coal Industry initiated the establishment of a professional holiday.
Wages: the USSR and now
During the time of the Soviet Union, miners were perceived at the level of heroism and their contribution to the state on the level of cosmonauts. They were considered the elite of the working class, respected people who daily extracted “black gold” from the bowels of the earth, working in hard conditions. Their work was accordingly remunerated: at an average wage in the country of 115-145 rubles per month, shaft men could receive up to 700-800 rubles. For comparison, the price of a passenger car Zaporozhets in 1980 was 3,750 rubles.
In the 1990s and early 2000s, against the background of the collapse of the USSR and the restructuring of the entire industry, the prestige of the profession dramatically dropped down. In 1993 - 1997, 153 coal mining enterprises were shut down, leading to the extinction of many cities and towns. Unemployment led to hunger strikes and “rail wars,” intensely covered by news channels.
Only a decade later, anti-crisis measures by the government managed to stabilize the situation. Between 2002 and 2012, the output of Russian coal increased by a quarter, exports by three times, and capital investment in coal mining by four times. The Long-Term Program for the Development of the Coal Industry until 2030, which provides a systematic infusion of more than 3.7 trillion rubles, also played an important role. True, except for one company, the Arktikugol State Trust, the entire industry went private...
Although the miners’ incomes have never returned to the “cosmic” level, their labour is still well-paid. Of course, the amounts depend a lot on location and speciality.
The notion of “miner” is very broad: it includes the head of a coal mining company, the head of a section, a mining foreman, an underground miner, an electric fitter, and a mine-digging machine operator. There is a long list of additional professions: mining inspector, labour protection engineer, mine fitter, and many others.
They require different levels of education and qualifications. While workers are trained at specialized schools and colleges, engineering and technical personnel are trained at specialized universities.
In the Kemerovo Region, the salary of miners working underground varies from 40 to 80 thousand rubles; miners earn from 70 to 80 thousand, shaft workers - from 60 to 90 thousand, electricians - from 60 thousand, mechanics of mining machinery - from 65 thousand, mechanics of tunnelling equipment - from 100 to 140 thousand, labour protection specialists - up to 140 thousand rubles.
The situation is fundamentally different in the Far East, let us say, in the Khabarovsk Krai, where a miner earns from 120 thousand rubles, an underground machine operator - from 125 thousand, an electrician - from 160 thousand rubles.
The standard package offered by the companies when hiring includes assistance with lodging, medical insurance, early retirement, and other social benefits for the employees and their families.
It has not yet been possible to bring back the former prestige of the profession. For example, a miner in Australia and America, if translated into rubles, earns about 350-450 thousand. This largely explains the prestige of the field.
But the conditions are different there, too. Only in Russia a working shift in a mine usually lasts 6 hours, while in the West it may be 8, 10, or even 12 hours by agreement with the trade union. In addition, hourly wages are widespread, so the employer is interested in bringing the worker to the mine as quickly as possible after their arrival and keeping them as busy as possible.
The image of the miner among ordinary people is formed mainly from the news and movies. However, everyone writes about the problems in living colour, and only a few write about the victories. How many people know that in 2018 in Kuzbass the mine named after Vladlen Yalevsky set a world record in productivity of the longwall face: 1 million 627 thousand tons per month from one face? In the 1980s-1990s, a multi-longwall-face mine was considered large with a production capacity of more than 1 million tons a year.
What did the digitalization era bring to coal miners?
The portrait of a worker covered in coal dust takes us back in time. Modern shafts and mines are high-tech enterprises with powerful and reliable equipment, multifunctional safety systems, continuous monitoring and control of the state of the rock mass, the mine atmosphere, and the position of the personnel.
Mechanization, automation, and even robotization of basic technological processes significantly change the content of miners’ work. How does this affect their working conditions and prospects?
“Certainly, the need for low-skilled personnel in coal mines is decreasing. Within 10-15 years, many of the operations previously performed by them will be automated. Certain types are already being performed remotely today. For example, autonomous transport is gradually being introduced at mines and quarries, replacing drivers and machinists. In Australia, at least three longwall faces operate fully automatically. Over time, this experience will be extended to other countries. In Russia, enterprises in Kuzbass have already achieved a fairly high level of automation,” says Oleg Kazanin, Dean of the Mining Department of the St. Petersburg Mining University.
According to him, the coal-mining sector does not lag behind the oil and gas industry in terms of modernization. If Gazpromneft-Khantos has a production control centre with the Digital Twin technology, then SUEK Kuzbass has a unified dispatch and analytical centre, where the information from all enterprises of the company is gathered. There is a large video wall with a lot of screens on which the operators can see online what is happening in each face and the open pit area. There is also a matrix, which displays summing up information about the main mine subsystems and the behaviour of the array. The colour light indicator shows the degree of need to react to any changes in the indicators. This increases the efficiency of the technological process and the safety of operation.
Further realization of the “smart mine” conception supposes all-round introduction of information technologies at all stages of the life cycle of mining enterprises: from geological exploration with the creation of a 3D model of deposit, designing with the determination of the most rational scenario of development of mining works, operation with on-line optimization of processes and risk assessment till the closing of the mine.
“Along with reducing the need for low-skilled workers, the need to hire highly skilled professionals capable of operating expensive and complex machinery will increase every year. The modernization of the industry is reflected in the training system for mining engineers. In addition to compulsory mastering of the basic programs used in mining, students of our university have the opportunity to acquire additional competencies. As new software, technologies or equipment appear, we promptly develop the relevant program, which students can study on a free basis and receive a certificate. Moreover, today we have very popular refresher programs for mining employees in various fields such as digital technologies, modern mining technologies, and many others," says Oleg Kazanin.
Why fewer accidents?
One of the trends in coal mining is the concentration of mining operations. They are centred on one seam, horizon, and in the extreme case in one face that fully provides the entire production capacity. This leads to a reduction in the number of people in the mine, reducing the length and simplifying the network of workings, and, accordingly, simpler and more reliable transport and ventilation schemes.
Since 2013, it has been a mandatory requirement for coal mines to have multifunctional safety systems to monitor and control the situation underground. Personnel positioning systems have been introduced: the dispatcher can see exactly where the employees are. Moreover, today it is suggested to use not only stationary sensors but also sensors built into the headlamp. They make it possible to obtain information on methane content directly in the place where the miner works. Almost all companies implement the “zero accidents” strategy. All of these factors significantly reduce the risk of emergencies.
There also is another reason. In 2010, a new principle was introduced in the calculation of wages, according to which 70% of the amount does not depend on production volume. And only 30% is affected by productivity. These incentives are aimed at preventing people from taking risks for the sake of fulfilling or overfulfilling the plan. Today it is more effective to work consistently and systematically for a long time rather than rare records and regular downtime. In other words, Stakhanovites are not a priority today.
The Russian coal industry is export-oriented, and the long-term program provides for a further increase in coal production. In this connection, there is a talk about expanding the carrying capacity of BAM and the development of the perspective Ulug-Khem basin. Global demand for domestic raw materials from the countries of the Asia-Pacific region is still high and stable. In 2020, there were 57 coal mines and 130 surface mines in our country, which employ over 150 thousand people, and about 500 thousand more in the related sectors.