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The potential role of underground refuge chambers for SCSR changeover

Oilfield Technology,

In 2008 the Queensland Department of Mines and Energy (DME) was so concerned about a series of level 1 exercises in its coal mines that it commissioned its business unit, Simtars, to deliver a report that would provide a solution. The report was co-funded by the Australian Coal Association Research Program (ACARP).

SCSR changeover: the problem

The report’s executive summary begins: “There are significant concerns in the Australian underground coal mine industry regarding the safe changeover of SCSR (self contained self rescuers). The Queensland underground level 1 emergency exercises have revealed an unsatisfactory failure rate in the SCSR changeover. In an adverse atmosphere, it could mean multiple casualties.”

The report, which took a further two years to compile before being published in 2010, is ACARP Project C17016 part A. It refers back to 32 miners involved in the initial level 1 exercises who completed a follow-up survey aimed at identifying the risks associated with SCSR changeovers. The most notable of these was having to changeover in a toxic or otherwise “adverse” atmosphere, where a single intake of breath could prove fatal.

The report claims to fully consider a number of potential solutions, including refuge chambers and change-over-stations (COS). The vast majority are hastily dismissed, however, in favour of one proposed solution: the report is almost entirely weighted towards the idea of a “personal changeover enclosure”. In my opinion – and I suspect to a lot of other people in the industry – it’s an entirely ludicrous proposition more likely to ensure harm than good. Prototypes of the system were first developed by Simtars themselves between 2003 – 2004.

Personal changeover enclosure

In summary, the personal changeover enclosure is an airtight plastic bag, which the miner places over his/her head, and then purges with a secondary air source while they attempt to remove one SCSR and don another. The air source required to purge the bag, it is said, could either be from “stored cylinders or from a surface borehole compressor on a mine air supply line”. The report later goes on to suggest that the enclosures could be housed in overhead storage compartments at pre-determined locations, “falling down just like oxygen masks in an aircraft cabin”.

Suffice to say there are a host of issues with this proposal. The finer details of the personal changeover enclosure are there for you, the reader, to evaluate in your own time should you wish to download the full report. However, the very idea of adding another layer of difficulty to an already complex and claustrophobic experience is quite baffling to me.

The need for some form of solution however is without question. Without a safe place to changeover SCSRs, the only option currently available to miners is to hold their breath for the duration of a changeover.

Have you ever tried holding your breath for up to 2 minutes?

Of the 32 miners surveyed, “more than half believed that a safe changeover might be compromised due to the changeover time being greater than the duration of holding a breath”. The report here glosses the actual figures – in fact, only 12% (4 out of the 32 miners) believed they could hold their breath for the average time it took to make a changeover (1 – 2 minutes). The remaining 88% (28 miners) were either certain they couldn’t hold their breath for that amount of time, or were unsure, with 22% (7 miners) thinking there might just be enough time.

This difficulty is multiplied by the number of changeovers likely required in exiting a mine: 56% of miners believed between 1 and 3; the rest thought as much as 5 or more.

Imagine yourself holding your breath for that same amount of time in a real-life emergency, while having to carry out the fairly complex procedure of a SCSR changeover. You’re panicked, you’re in shock, possibly disorientated or just plain exhausted. There’s a chance you can’t even see the hands in front of your face; you could already be injured.

So when the report states that “there are significant concerns in the Australian underground coal mining industry regarding the safe changeover of SCSR”, it’s no exaggeration. In my view, this report clearly indicates that the current system of using SCSR’s in isolation (without a safe area for conducting changeover) is fatally flawed.

The case for refuge chambers: falling on deaf ears

So, back to the solutions on offer. Of the report’s 100 pages (not including appendices), only 2 – 3 pages cover the potential for change-over-stations and/or refuge chambers. The rate and manner in which they are dismissed as a viable solution is quite frankly staggering.

Firstly, we hear the same tried and trusted line about fundamental differences between the hard rock and coal industries when it comes to rescue philosophy (with coal, the idea is to get out rather than sit and await rescue).

Any refuge chamber manufacturer operating in the coal industry will tell you to use the chamber primarily as a staging post: changeover your SCSR’s, gather intelligence on the path ahead, ensure you and the other miners are ready – and move outbye. Only stay if escape is impossible. This simple message is understood loud and clear in the US, China and virtually every other major coal producing country in the world. Is the report suggesting that Australian miners somehow just won’t get it?

The report then flags concerns regarding ongoing relocation of refuge chambers and COS when faced with a fast moving working panel, going on to state the time, cost and potential damage during the relocation are always of serious concern to the mine operator. By the time I got to this section I started to wonder when the author had last seen a refuge chamber. MineARC’s chambers, for example, are highly portable, built to take significant blast pressure, withstand flash fires and survive the rough and tumble of the mine environment.

What’s happened since this report was published?

It’s been five years since the DME acknowledged the seriousness of the issue regarding SCSR changeovers and commissioned this report. In the time since the report was published, to the best of our knowledge not a single thing has been done. If the personal changeover enclosure was their serious solution to the problem, we’ve never seen one underground. Have you?

There have been no changes in regulations, no specific directions given in safety bulletins and no requests to manufacturers. The report itself, rather than being widespread, well read and freely available, was difficult to find and, having been found, was available to purchase for AU$ 44.00 with an interesting twist: the online application to purchase required me to answer the question “how would my receiving this document benefit the QLD Coal Industry?” Surely a better question would be “how is it benefitting the QLD Coal Industry to keep the document in an obscure location and charge for its purchase?”

The bottom line

Allow me to close by saying this. I have a lot of sympathy for the Australian coal industry at present. Since first attempting to address the resistance to refuge chambers and COS, it is my belief now that it all boils down to one clear issue: cost. Not differing escape philosophies, not maintenance or procedural challenges, but cost – pure and simple.

There is no disputing the coal industry is doing it tough at the moment. In the US, China, the UK and other countries, refuge chamber legislation has been passed over the years, which by proxy has also resolved the issue of providing a safe-haven for SCSR changeovers. In contrast the cost of refuge/COS has never been factored in and absorbed within the Australian coal community. How do they afford now to address the issue faced with higher production costs and lowering demand?

Perhaps it’s time the DME and other government authorities step in and provide some direction to mine operators.

The Chinese Government passed legislation that saw a compulsory Yuan figure placed on every tonne of coal sold to cover the cost of safety reforms, including placing refuge chambers in all underground mines. Total production of raw black coal in Australia for FY2010/11 was 405 million t. A 10 cent/t allowance would generate AU$ 40 million for new safety measures.

Faced with the Simtars report, the governing bodies should at the very least be encouraging mine operators to meet with manufacturers to find a solution that reduces cost without reducing safety.

Paul Medcraft is the Australasian business development manager at MineARC. The views expressed are those of the author. 

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