miner safety
January 5, 2006 10:02 AM   Subscribe

Why don't miners carry an oxygen tank?
posted by The Jesse Helms to Work & Money (17 answers total)
Response by poster: This article indicates officials said each of the trapped miners was equipped with a mask and small oxygen tank holding one hour of oxygen. Maybe the danger cannot be mitigated, like a saw to a lumberjack's hand?
posted by The Jesse Helms at 10:03 AM on January 5, 2006

Just a guess...they could ignite in an enclosed space.
posted by MrMulan at 10:03 AM on January 5, 2006

Response by poster: A 5 pound tank is good for almost 5 hours. Has Upton Sinclair really been dead so long?
posted by The Jesse Helms at 10:05 AM on January 5, 2006

Or better, why not have an oxygen generator on hand (like on a plane)?
posted by wackybrit at 10:13 AM on January 5, 2006

Best answer: Compressed air takes up too much space. A single tank, the size fire-fighters use, lasts between 30 and 45 minutes. It's possible to wear two, but one + mask and regulator is very tiring to work in.

Instead, miners carry an "oxygen candle" which is is much smaller and produces usable oxygen much longer, 2 to 5 hours typically. They weigh up to about ten pounds or so and are the size of a large thermos. These use perchlorates, which when wetted by the water in breath, release oxygen and a lot of heat. They're also single use, somewhat dangerous and rather expensive, which is why you don't see them in other uses.

Slate has a decent article on them right now.
posted by bonehead at 10:14 AM on January 5, 2006

That article is wrong to call it a tank, TJH. There's no way that a "small oxygen tank" could "hold... one hour of oxygen..." for an average male even just walking around, let alone doing the heavy work you'd expect just after a cave-in. No, they were using SCSRs.
posted by bonehead at 10:19 AM on January 5, 2006

As my dad used to always drum into my head: oxygen is not flammable. It is necessary for combustion, but the oxygen itself will not "burn" in the sense that is usually meant with that word. It's the (very necessary) oxidizer in the burning of something else, but it was going to already have been present in the mine anyway, so it doesn't seem like a huge deal to carry a tank around. Or maybe it is, I dunno. Maybe an academic point here, but my dad would be mad if I didn't say it.

But the reason seems simple to me: an oxygen tank is pretty darn heavy, and would not last a single shift. It's the same reason some guys learned to climb Everest without oxygen -- because without the huge weight of the tanks, they could do it in days, rather than months, even though they could barely function at 29k feet with no supplemental oxygen.
posted by teece at 10:39 AM on January 5, 2006

bonehead, are these "candles" a kind of rebreather, then?
posted by Kirth Gerson at 10:42 AM on January 5, 2006

teecee, the reason I put "candle" in scare quotes is that it really isn't a combustion reaction in the normal sense. It's composed of a superoxide that releases pure O2 when hydrated. It's very exothermic, to the point that skin burns are a problem with these devices. The Wikipaedia has a short article on it, but doesn't really describe the chemistry. Hmmm. If you're really curious I could dig up some references, but that would take a while.
posted by bonehead at 10:46 AM on January 5, 2006

No, Kirth, they're chemical generators. They don't scrub carbon dioxide.
posted by bonehead at 10:49 AM on January 5, 2006

bonehead, I was actually thinking about what MrMulan said, rather than your candle comment. These oxygen candles sound cool, even if they're not actually burning in the way an actual candle does.
posted by teece at 10:52 AM on January 5, 2006

What about numerous 'spares' throughout the mine?
posted by mmdei at 11:13 AM on January 5, 2006

Best answer: I went on a tour of an active mine in Australia several years back. As I recall, all miners had portable breathing units (probably an SCSR) which they could rely on in an emergency. I think we carried them as well.

In the case of the Virginia tragedy, lack of oxygen wasn't the biggest problem, it was the presence of carbon monoxide. At levels of 1300 ppm, even with plenty of oxygen, the miners would lose consciousness within a few hours and die shortly thereafter.
posted by justkevin at 11:21 AM on January 5, 2006

Everybody's giving very smart answers, but the question doesn't make any sense. The Jesse Helms asks:

Why don't miners carry an oxygen tank?

and then links to an article that says miners carry oxygen tanks. Am I missing something?
posted by designbot at 12:36 PM on January 5, 2006

Note that perchlorate candles are the preferred oxygen generator by the Russian space program, and were responsible for the fire aboard Mir. This was later attributed to a manufacturing defect; they don't normally burn with an open flame.

designbot, I think TJH's second comment on 5-pound tanks suggests he meant Why don't miners carry a larger oxygen tank?

In any case, the CO problem definitely overwhelmed the oxygen problem. It wasn't a lack of oxygen, it was too much carbon monoxide, which is deadly. It's possible to absorb CO through the skin, and it will quickly find its way into red blood cells which will favor it over oxygen and displace the blood's ability to supply oxygen to the body and brain.

It would seem the operative question isn't that of oxygen supply, but protective measures against CO-impregnated air. It may indeed be nearly impossible to mitigate against this danger.
posted by dhartung at 12:56 AM on January 6, 2006

I should clarify: there may be little that can be done for miners already trapped in a CO-saturated airspace.

Since it appears that the Sago mine had "substantial ventilation, roof control, and emergency escape violations", however, the mitigation would seem to be more effective in the prevention arena.
posted by dhartung at 4:22 AM on January 6, 2006

A single tank, the size fire-fighters use, lasts between 30 and 45 minutes. It's possible to wear two, but one + mask and regulator is very tiring to work in.

Not that it would've mattered over days, but when I went to the firefighting academy they taught us breathing strategies that coupled with dormancy would allow you to stretch an SCBA tank for 2-4 hours, as opposed to 45-60 minutes in normal activity or 20-40 minutes under stress and high activity. I wonder how controlled breathing techniques would work with a machine like this.
posted by rollbiz at 5:08 PM on January 6, 2006

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