Depending on what it is that is being mined and depending on the mining method, this way of making a living can be dubbed the deadliest, with some competition from ocean fishing, tree cutting and construction of high rises.
With all types of mining, there are dangers to human health and life that come from the process, the mineral that is being mined and from many other factors, including geopolitical resistance to mining operations. There are also dangers to the environment and to habitat that some from surface and deep mining operations.
In the process of mining a surface or placer claim, the danger is to the environment because the top layers of earth are denuded of trees, then scraped down from the top, until there is no fertile soil that will support plant life. Plant life is the starting point for habitat that will support humans and animals. Placer mining is a form of deliberate and permanent desertification that makes a riparian or other restoration practically impossible.
In some placer claim mining, there are permanent pools of noxious liquids that resulted from using toxic chemicals to extract the valuable mineral. Other claims are littered with massive piles of unwanted detritus that is heavy and dangerous to move.
Placer claims can be harmful or deadly to life forms when a pocket of a problematic mineral, such as silica or asbestos is uncovered. The violent and mechanized digging process causes the minerals to aerosolize into the atmosphere where they are breathed in. If the placer mining involved denuding soil that is washed into waterways, then the waterways can become clouded and eventually unable to support aquatic life. The same goes for dredging and hydraulic mining that washes soil into delicate aquatic ecosystems.
Dams are a placer claim. The mineral is water, of course, but poorly built or aged dams can cause sudden and devastating flooding if they should fail or be overwhelmed by too much water. Releases from the dams can have the wrong temperature, harming fish larvae and other life that depends upon a tight range of water temperatures. And building dams is not without the common hazards that go into any massive construction venture. Other water diversions and re distributions can cause unanticipated damage to lands and can lead to desertification.
With a strike, or deep mining claim, there is an identified vein, cache or pool of a mineral. The process of drilling and extracting oil, digging out huge chambers of coal, and following veins of valuable gold are examples of strike claims that come with a host of hazards.
The first hazard is collapse or breakdown of the well head or the chamber that is being mined. There is always the chance that there will be unanticipated natural events, pockets of gas, earthquakes and other problems that can jeopardize and end lives.
But there are well known and usable technologies for properly shoring up mining tunnels, for constructing and maintaining proper well heads, but corporate resistance to complying with regulations has created the biggest hazard: human greed and corruption that results in unsafe and hazardous practices.
The year 2010 has had no shortage of incredible accidents and disasters that came, not from the inherent dangers of the operations, but from human causes. There was cost cutting, political manipulation, improper management and repeated and often criminal safety violations.
There was collusion with lawmakers and with regulatory agencies, combined with legal challenges that were oriented toward eliminating as many restrictions as possible. In the United States, the ability to deregulate deep mining operations became a game of getting away with all violations of standard safety and engineering protocols, which has enraged a nation. Worse, even judges who are heavily invested in the oil, gas and mining industries are not required to recuse from adjudicating cases that invariably go in favor of the mining corporations.
The inherent dangers to deep mining involve the mechanics of burrowing deep underground and shoring up the bore sufficiently to prevent a collapse. There are issues of gases that will build up in contained areas, creating the perfect concentration of air and gas that and can be ignited by the simple spark of static electricity from a person's hair or clothing.
Sometimes, the mineral itself can be toxic. Radium, uranium, asbestos, silica and others can be deadly, especially after repeated and lengthy exposures.
Finally, there are geopolitical hazards to mining. Resistance from residents can lead to violent resistance. Oppression, even through warfare, interference and slavery has forced indigenous people to do the mining or to be killed for resisting. The need and greed of the DeBeers and other diamond selling legends has caused untold death and misery.
Now, the same corporations bemoan the flood of "conflict" diamonds, which are simply diamonds that are not controlled by the cartels, which has led to media campaigns that convince the public that conflict diamonds must be avoided. The campaign is more to enrich the diamond cartels than it is a human rights issue.
In summary, mining is not just a process that has physical hazards. Mining is fraught with corporate, human and geopolitical hazards that can directly or indirectly cause the deaths of tens of thousands of people every year.