Mining Topic: Refuge Chambers

What is the health and safety problem?

Over the years, several mine workers, such as those involved in the Sago mine explosion, have survived an initial disaster but later succumbed to toxic gases because they could not be rescued quickly enough. Since 2009, federal regulations require that refuge alternatives be installed in all U.S. underground coal mines. Refuges are intended to provide mine workers access to clean air, food, and water until they can be rescued. If mine workers understand when and how to properly use refuges, their chances of surviving disasters could be greatly improved.

What is the extent of the problem?

As part of a recent study funded by NIOSH Mining, U.S. coal mining accidents since 1970 were reviewed to determine whether the availability of a refuge would have helped save mine workers’ lives. The review encompassed all ignitions, explosions, fires, and inundations where at least one mine worker was killed. The results indicate that refuge chambers would have had a positive impact on the outcome of 12 of 38 such events. The researchers conclude that, “a total of 74 of the 252 fatalities (29%) would have been positively impacted and potentially would have survived the accident.” About 40,000 mine workers work in U.S. underground coal mines. They all need effective training on the use of refuge chambers before the next mine disaster strikes.

How is the NIOSH Mining program addressing this problem?

Refuge chamber training logo.

Refuge chamber training logo.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) passed regulations in 2008 requiring that mine workers be given annual instruction on the deployment and use of refuge alternatives (see 30 CFR 75.1504(c)(3)). To help the coal industry comply with these regulations, and to help instructors teach mine workers about the use of refuge chambers, the NIOSH Mining Program developed a suite of training modules covering:

  • operations - how to operate a refuge chamber
  • decision-making - what alternatives to consider when deciding whether to enter a refuge chamber
  • expectations - what to expect physiologically and psychologically when seeking shelter in a refuge chamber

By completing this training, mine workers will be better prepared to make educated decisions during emergencies such as fires or explosions, and will better understand the purpose and use of refuges.

What are the significant findings?

NIOSH researchers developed, field tested, and published six refuge chamber training modules to address the training needs described above. They have also published two reports containing recommendations for (1) conducting effective refuge chamber operations training, and (2) creating effective manuals to teach mine workers how to set up, inspect, move, and maintain refuge chambers.

What are the next steps?

NIOSH is monitoring the industry and will continue to seek feedback from stakeholders on the need for future refuge chamber training research.

Page last reviewed: November 20, 2020
Page last updated: March 15, 2017