A breaker boy was a worker in the United States whose job was to separate by hand impurities from coal in a coal breaker. Although breaker boys were primarily children, elderly coal miners who could no longer work in the mines because of age, disease, or accident were sometimes employed as breaker boys as well.
The use of breaker boys began in the mid-1860s. Although public outrage over the use of breaker boys existed by the mid-1880s, the use of children to remove impurities from coal did not end until the 1920s. The removal of impurities was done by hand, usually by “breaker boys” between the ages of eight and 12 years old.
For 10 hours a day, six days a week, breaker boys would sit on wooden seats, perched over the chutes and conveyor belts, picking slate and other impurities out of the coal. The boys working on top of chutes or conveyor belts would stop the coal by pushing their boots into the stream of fuel flowing beneath them, briefly pick out the impurities, and then let the coal pass on to the next picker. Others would divert coal into a chute at which they sat, and pick the coal clean before diverting the fuel toward “clean” coal bins.
The work was hazardous. Breaker boys were forced to work without gloves so that they could better handle the slick coal. The slate, however, was sharp, and boys would leave work with their fingers cut and bleeding. Breaker boys often lost fingers to the rapidly moving conveyor belts.
Others lost feet, hands, arms, and legs as they moved among the machinery, caught under belts or in gears. Many were crushed to death, their bodies only retrieved from the gears of the machinery by supervisors at the end of the working day.
Others were caught in the rush of coal, and crushed to death or smothered. Dry coal would kick up so much dust, breaker boys sometimes wore lamps on their heads to see, and asthma and black lung disease were common. Coal was often washed or treated with sulfuric acid to remove impurities, and the acid burned the hands of the boys.