What do you do if you're trapped in a mine?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Jan. 3 2006 6:18 PM

What Do You Do If You're Trapped in a Mine?

First, try your self-contained self-rescuer.

Download the MP3 audio version of this story hereThe Explainer now has its own free daily podcast; click here to learn more.

Living life like a canary in a coal mine. Click image to expand.
Living life like a canary in a coal mine

Thirteen miners were trapped underground after an explosion at a West Virginia mine on Monday. A rescue team punched a hole into the mine the next morning and discovered dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. An official from the company that owns the mine said workers are trained to build barricades around an area with breathable air and then wait for a rescue team. Is that really a good idea?

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Only as a last resort. As soon as a miner discovers a problem, he should reach for his self-contained self-rescuer, a breathing apparatus designed to provide oxygen for at least one hour. An SCSR weighs about 7 pounds and comprises a mouth tube, nose clips, a pair of goggles, and an oxygen box worn in front of the chest. Some are small enough to be worn on a miner's belt; others are kept in side passages off the mine's main tunnel. Anyone who doesn't carry an SCSR should have a smaller device, called a W-65, that can filter out carbon monoxide—at least for a while.


Each new underground miner learns how to put on an SCSR during the 40-hour training course required by federal law. (Some states extend the training; in West Virginia, you'll spend 80 hours in class before you can start work.) The course syllabus includes fires, roof collapses, and other emergencies.

In most cases, a miner would put on his SCSR and then make for the nearest safe escape route. His best bet would be an intake passage, which links to the outside and provides fresh air to the mine. Intake routes are marked all the way to the exit with color-coded reflectors. (They're often green; a secondary escape route might be marked in red.) If there's no power or light, a miner might be able to use a rope attached to the wall or ceiling as a guide.

If the escape route is blocked off, and there's absolutely no way to get to another one, miners are trained to barricade themselves into a relatively safe place. First, they use hand-held gas monitors to find a spot with clean air—an intake passage might be pretty good, even if it's blocked off on one end. (Not every miner carries a gas monitor: Every foreman should have one, as should any miner who operates heavy equipment.)

The barricade can be made of anything as long as it's airtight. Miners might use rubble, cement blocks, pieces of equipment, or the brattice cloth normally used to deflect air and promote ventilation. Tools or special materials for building barricades might be kept in emergency-supply stores throughout the mine.

Bonus Explainer: Do miners still use canaries to detect poisonous gas? No, but the birds haven't been obsolete for very long. British miners used them throughout the 20th century. Because canaries have fast-beating hearts and a quick metabolism, even a small amount of carbon monoxide will make them totter and fall. (A canary that stops singing also sounds an alarm.) In modern times, birds were kept in a plastic case with ventilation holes; miners could save and reuse them by sealing up the case at the first signs of poisoning. The last coal-mine canaries in the United Kingdom were retired in 1996. (Some people have looked to canaries for advance warning of a terrorist attack; at the end of 2001, New York City pet-store owners told newspapers they were selling the birds in record numbers.)

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Tom Hall of the Mining Extension Service at West Virginia University and Carol Raulston of the National Mining Association.


Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

What Hillary Clinton’s Iowa Remarks Reveal About Her 2016 Fears

After This Merger, One Company Could Control One-Third of the Planet's Beer Sales

John Oliver Pleads for Scotland to Stay With the U.K.

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter


Don’t Expect Adrian Peterson to Go to Prison

In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal. 

The Juice

Ford’s Big Gamble

It’s completely transforming America’s best-selling vehicle.

I Tried to Write an Honest Profile of One of Bollywood’s Biggest Stars. It Didn’t Go Well.

Here’s Why College Women Don’t Take Rape Allegations to the Police

The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 1:51 PM Here’s Why College Women Don’t Take Rape Allegations to the Police
  News & Politics
Sept. 15 2014 8:56 PM The Benghazi Whistleblower Who Might Have Revealed a Massive Scandal on his Poetry Blog
Sept. 15 2014 7:27 PM Could IUDs Be the Next Great Weapon in the Battle Against Poverty?
Sept. 15 2014 4:38 PM What Is Straight Ice Cream?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
Brow Beat
Sept. 15 2014 8:58 PM Lorde Does an Excellent Cover of Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”
Future Tense
Sept. 15 2014 4:49 PM Cheetah Robot Is Now Wireless and Gallivanting on MIT’s Campus
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 15 2014 11:00 AM The Comet and the Cosmic Beehive
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.