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Alberta Online Encyclopedia
When Coal Was King
Industry, People and Challenges
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How Disasters Happen

Exhibit of safety equipment in the Crowsnest Museum.Because he was responsible for safety conditions underground, the fire boss was one of the most important company men. Once before and once during the shift, he checked doors and brattice work to ensure proper ventilation. He also tested for the presence of gas. 'Firedamp', a gas formed during the long period of vegetable matter decomposition as the coal was being formed, posed the greatest danger. Chiefly methane, firedamp is combustible when mixed with a certain proportion of air. Most firedamp seeps from pores in the coal and is impossible to detect without a test. The fire boss always referred to his safety lamp during his inspections of the mine. The appearance of a pale blue 'cap' of burning gas around the lamp's yellow flame, signified the presence of firedamp.

A warning was posted in the section of the mine where firedamp had been detected.

A pit boss testing for methane gas prior to workmen entering the area, Actually, the inspector would have tested for gas before permitting a flash photo such as this to be taken underground; an exploding flash bulb could easily set off a mine explosion. While the Lethbridge field was not considered to be "gassy," gas was present and vigilance was necessary. Adequate ventilation was all-important in coal mines as the incoming air dissipated noxious gases and produced fresh air for the underground work crews.Firedamp was not the only danger in the mines of the Pass. Fine coal dust when suspended in certain densities in the air could ignite on its own. In most cases, however, the dust went off as an after explosion triggered by the initial combustion of the firedamp, carrying the disastrous effects throughout the mine with devastating results. In order to reduce this danger, the fire boss spread rock dust (crushed limestone) or water in the dusty areas.

'Afterdamp', a mixture of carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide that replaces oxygen in the atmosphere after an explosion, could cause death by asphyxiation. To check for the presence of afterdamp, the fire boss carried caged canaries into the mine. The birds displayed an immediate susceptibility to the effects of afterdamp by fainting. Withdrawn from the gaseous area they quickly revived.

Gas blowouts or sudden explosions of gas pockets within the coalface, and cave-ins were ever-present hazards. To compound matters, the absorption of oxygen by the coal surface could start fires through spontaneous combustion.

Despite these dangers, over the long term the mineworkers accepted the fact that their occupations could be perilous. As one miner stated, the hazards were ' part of the territory'. Through the years, volunteer rescue teams composed of trained miners helped to ensure that rescue operations went as quickly and as smoothly as possible.

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