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When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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Health and Safety

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Miners' safety helmets, Crowsnest Museum.Mining regulations in Alberta and British Columbia reflected the concern of authorities to provide a stable environment in which the industry could flourish and attract investment, and in which the danger of accidents and their impact on life and property could be reduced. While the state sought to co-operate with coal companies, its policies sometimes brought officials into conflict with owners. The result was an uneasy balance of enforcement and neglect, particularly before the First World War when regulations were frequently ignored and many accidents occurred.

Miners' safety helmets and shoes, Crowsnest Museum.In both British Columbia and Alberta, safety standards and regulations were introduced at an early date and gradually made more complex over time. The first Coal Mines Act in the region appeared in British Columbia in 1877 and was intended for the coal mines of Vancouver Island. Modeled on legislation in other jurisdictions in North America and Europe, the provisions in this act were later applied to the mines on the British Columbia side of the Crowsnest Pass. In 1899, a British Columbia department of mines was created with a separate coal mines section in it, reflecting the growing importance of the coal sector. In the region later to become Alberta, the coal mines were first regulated by a territorial ordinance of 1893 that was based mainly on the legislation in British Columbia and elsewhere. After Alberta became a province, the Coal Mines Act of 1906 established a separate mines branch to collect statistics and supervise the industry.1

In both provinces, enforcement of the regulations hinged on the inspection system. A staff of inspectors was charged with visiting each mine regularly. The state walked a tightrope between the concern for safety and the fear of interfering with the ability of companies to make a profit. Before World War One, the system was inefficient. The provinces provided insufficient funds. Inspectors had to deal with the hostility of the managers when they visited, and with attempts to avoid the observance of inconvenient regulations. The situation was particularly poor in Alberta, where the Bellevue disaster of 1910, as well as a number of other major accidents, occurred. 2

Galt Hospital, now the Sir Alexander Galt Museum, was the place where injured miners were taken after being hurt and rescued. Both the professional and nursing staffs at the Galt Hospital became experts in the treatment of concussion, broken limbs, crushed ribs, crushed pelvis, and other such injuries. The reason the professionals were so good was that they got so much practice.The provinces responded to the large number of disasters by improving their safety regulations and enforcement. Emergency rescue provisions were introduced shortly before World War One. In 1915, British Columbia took the lead in initiating a "safety first" campaign designed to educate workers and others involved in the industry. After 1918, improvements were made in safety observance in both provinces, as miners and managers alike were encouraged to acknowledge their role in contributing to a safe working environment.3 Accidents could never be completely avoided. The danger was inherent in the physical conditions of mining, but the industry eventually acquired a better reputation for safe practices.

William N.T. Wylie, "Coal-Mining Landscapes: Commemorating Coal Mining in Alberta and Southeastern British Columbia," a report prepared for the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada, Parks Canada Agency, 2001.

See Also: The Coal Industry—Overview, Rapid Expansion, Domestic and Steam Coalfields, 1914-1947: The Struggling Industry, Collapse and Rebirth, Settlement of the West, Issues and Challenges—Overview, Entrepreneurship, Technology, Underground Techniques, Surface Technology, Surface Mining, Social Impacts, Unions, 1882-1913: Unionization and Early Gains, 1914-1920: Revolutionary Movement, 1921-1950s: Labour Unrest and Setbacks, Mining Companies, People of the Coal Mines, The Middle Class, Miners and Local Government, Politics and Economics , Environmental Impacts, Health and Safety—Overview, The State and Labour Relations, The State and Development after 1918, Alberta Coal Studies.


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