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.
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 Withdrawn from the gaseous area they
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.