Physical Characteristics at a Surface Mine Explained


Surface Mining Physical Features Explained Image

If you’re new at a surface mine, you’ll notice there’s a lot of specialized language: berm, highwall, pit, and more. If all that lingo has got you longing for understanding, this article is for you. We’re going to explain the terms typically used to describe the physical characteristics in a surface mine.

If you find this helpful, know that you can also download an interactive, multimedia glossary with these terms, definitions, and images, and also know that we’re working on a similar list of definitions (plus another downloadable, interactive glossary) about the typical equipment found at a surface mine as well.

So let’s get right to explaining what all those benches and berms are. You’ll be interested to know that all the terms, definitions, and images came from our online MSHA Part 46 Physical Characteristics of a Surface Mine Training course–we’ve given a short video sample immediately below, too.

We’ve also included a free Guide to MSHA Training Requirements for you below as well.

Terms Used to Describe Physical Characteristics of a Surface Mine

We’ve got eight terms related to surface mines listed for you below. Please use the comments section below if you can think of others that new surface miners should know.

Angle of Repose

Surface Mining Angle of Repose Image

The slope at which a material naturally comes to rest is referred to as the “angle of repose.” Each material’s angle of repose varies based on the nature of the material.

Understanding the angle of repose is critical to assessing the safety of highwalls or piles of unconsolidated material. When a material rests at an angle greater than its angle of repose, it can become dangerously unstable. Typically, the steeper the angle, the more likely a slide or collapse will occur.


Surface Mining Benches Image

Benches are terrace-like steps cut into steep hillsides or into the sides of an open pit. Benches help prevent rock slides into active mining areas by providing flat areas at intervals that slow or stop any falling material. Ranging from 25 to 60 feet in height, benches are usually cut and graded wide enough for two haul trucks to pass one another safely.


Surface Mining Berm Image

Berms are long, low piles of material built up to at least the mid-axle height of the largest mobile equipment which usually travels the roadway at the mine. They are placed and maintained in specific locations in order to clearly define safe limits of vehicle passage and dumping. Properly located and built berms help define the edges of haul roads and piles, mark the safe stopping distance at which loaders may dump material onto a pile, and may provide a sensation of contact to give the vehicle operator the opportunity to regain control and keep the vehicle from leaving the roadway.

Haul Roads

Surface Mining Haul Roads Image

In addition to providing truck haulage paths, haul roads define the general operational flow of equipment and material throughout active mining areas.

Haul roads are specifically designed to provide safe operation and travel of mining equipment. Haul roads are recommended to be twice the width of the largest equipment using the road at the mine and the road must be designed and graded so that an operator is able to stop a vehicle within the available site distance.


Surface Mining Highwalls Image

At surface mines, highwalls are unexcavated faces of exposed overburden which can range in height from 20 feet to more than 100 feet, depending upon the geological characteristics of the area and the material being mined.


Surface Mining Pit Image

The dominant feature in an open pit or quarry operation is the “pit,” a broad, deepened, often funnel-shaped area where material extraction and other active mining activities take place. The pit is created when the overburden, the rock or soil overlaying a deposit of minerals or stone, has been removed to access the material being mined.

Settling Tanks or Ponds

Settling Tank

In operations where aggregate and other potential construction material is mined, washing may be part of the process. The used wash water may be piped to settling tanks or ponds where it can be reused after unwanted sediments have settled to the bottom. The size and location of these features will depend on the mining operation and material being mined.

Stockpiles and Wastepiles

Surface Mining Stockpile and Wastepile Image

Stockpiles and wastepiles are volumes of mined material which have been built up by conveyors or haul truck dumping. They can range greatly in size and height, depending upon the mining operation, the nature of the mined material, and the purpose of the pile.

Need MSHA/Surface Mining Part 46 Training?

Do you need help with MSHA Part 46 training? With online courses, an online training management system for documentation and other purposes, or both?

If so, you can get online MSHA Part 46 training in the following ways:

Free Surface Mining Physical Characteristics Glossary

We’ve taken the terms and definitions in this article and put them together in a multimedia, interactive surface mining physical characteristics glossary if you’d like to check that out. There’s even a way for you to download the interactive glossary for free.

Wrap-up: Knowing The Language Will Help When Working at a Surface Mine

Hope you found this article helpful. Knowing the different terms for the physical characteristics at a mine will help you know what’s what and get the job done. Especially if you’re a brand new worker or a contractor who’s been hired to work at a mine site.

Don’t forget these similar articles about MSHA Part 46 and surface mining that might be of interest, too:

And of course we’ve got the free guide to MHSA Training Requirements for you below as well.


MSHA Training Guide and Online Training Tools

Download our free guide to learn about MSHA, the MSHA Part 46 and 48 training requirements, and how to use online tools to satisfy MSHA Parts 46 and 48.

Download Free Guide


Want to Know More?

Reach out and a Vector Solutions representative will respond back to help answer any questions you might have.