NIOSH Study Supports Chambers and Shelters for Underground Mines

Researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) released a report that supports the use of in-place shelters and portable rescue chambers as alternative refuge methods for trapped underground coal miners.

The report, “Research Report on Refuge Alternatives for Underground Coal Mines,” was sent to Congress Jan. 23 as required by the 2006 Mine Improvement and Emergency Response (MINER) Act and points out that the current approach of building barricades, often from fire-resistant concrete blocks or brattice cloth, was not viable to keeping trapped miners alive.

Implementing the use of chambers would be more practical as they typically can contain enough supplies and equipment to sustain life for a period of time. In-place shelters, which include safe rooms, safe havens and bulkhead-based refuge stations, are commonly constructed in the mine and isolated with one or more bulkheads before being outfitted with supplies.

“Refuge alternatives have the potential for saving the lives of mine workers if they are part of a comprehensive escape plan and rescue plan, and if appropriate training is provided,” the report stated.

Phil Smith, a spokesperson for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) said NIOSH’s report supported the union’s long-held position in that shelters should be put in for miners who have unsuccessfully looked for other escape possibilities.

The research included literature surveys, national and international mine visits and meetings with mining experts from labor, industry, and government in the United States, Australia and South Africa. The report and its finding focused on the following areas:

  • Utility: Despite having some “operational deficiencies,” NIOSH indicated that based on its research, refuge alternatives can be “extremely useful to facilitate escape from the mine as well as to serve as a safe haven of last resort.”
  • Practicality: The successful installation of refuge alternatives and their commercial availability suggests that they are a practical solution, but not in mines that operate in less than 36 inches of coal.
  • Survivability: The likelihood of survivability depends upon establishing and maintaining an atmosphere that will support life, maintaining structural integrity through explosions, providing for basic human needs and the refuge’s location and position.
  • Costs: Costs associated with refuge alternatives include purchase, installation, training, maintenance, inspection and moves. The report outlined projected costs in each of these categories.
  • Testing: NIOSH developed protocol for testing chambers with simulated human occupancy to study CO2 levels, oxygen flow rates and the heat index. The testing revealed deficiencies and indicate the need for independent evaluations and testing beyond that conducted by chamber manufacturers. For example, two of the four chambers were unable to deliver oxygen for the duration of the test, and heat dissipation was more problematic in steel than inflatable chambers.
  • Training: NIOSH recommends quarterly training sessions to teach workers how to use the refuse alternatives, along with decision-making skill training to demonstrate when these alternatives should be used. NIOSH also suggests implementing expectation training to reduce workers’ anxiety associated with using these alternatives.

Section 13 of the 2006 MINER Act required NIOSH to conduct this research. The report can be accessed at

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