Self-rescuers have a specific place among other respiratory protective equipment. Ideally, a worker will never need one. Ideally, there will be no fire or smoke in a confined space, no gas release, no ventilation malfunction. It is an emergency that may happen once in a lifetime.
How do you make a product with the sincere hope your consumer will never need it? Anton Sakovych, Head of DEZEGA Board of directors, tells the story.
Knowing the history of mining and having been involved in it for the past decade, I am happy that much has been done to increase the safety of workers. Processes and procedures are being constantly improved to prevent all kinds of threats. We do much to prevent disasters, and this does help: the level of incidents has decreased; the death rate for some industries and regions has been zero for some years now. However, the less we think of danger, the more likely we are to let our guards down. However small the risk of serious emergency may be, it should never be placed at the bottom of a safety manager’s priorities.
The key difficulty is being acquainted with the actual situation of emergency. A carefully staged drill does not give clues about the ways humans actually respond in an emergency; while modelling it in such a way that a worker is unaware it’s a drill is unethical and dangerous. What we can do is analyze the information we have about past emergencies, define major risks, and address them.
In close cooperation with the users of its products, DEZEGA has developed a whole product line of training equipment, in the form of self-rescuers, to prepare workers to face different aspects of an emergency in a mine or confined space.
The major risk is rather obvious: without practice, one will not be able to manage a basically unknown device. We have asked miners in some countries, where training on donning a self-rescuer is not obligatory, to don them for the first time. At best, it takes a novice at least three minutes, which in the case of real emergency may result in a lethal dose of toxic gas. The worst-case scenario is not being able to don and breath at all. This problem is well known and relatively well addressed: in most countries, regular training is enforced by mine safety laws or are initiated by mine managers.
To fit such training needs, DEZEGA training self-rescuers have a reusable case and several cartridge options. Repeated training with an imitator cartridge – opening the case, following donning procedures, etc. – will help to develop learned behaviour. Muscle memory is more reliable in an actual emergency. The speed of donning is important: the sooner the underground worker’s respiratory organs are isolated from the environment, the less toxic gas they will inhale and the sooner they can escape.
Safety regulations in most coal-extracting countries obligate a training frequency of once every six months or even as little as once every two years. This is, of course, not enough to develop learned behaviour. This is where leadership in the promotion of safety standards is important. Privately owned companies, like DTEK, the largest Ukrainian energy holding, choose to do more and buy DEZEGA training self-rescuers with imitator cartridges for more frequent training. We encourage our clients to follow suit and exceed government-established minimum training standards.
There are, however, less obvious threats. Breathing in a self-rescuer with chemically-bonded oxygen is not like breathing ambient air. Because of the chemical reaction of oxygen release in a self-rescuer, the inhaled air gets warmer with time. The humidity level is higher, and the air has a unique taste. In one tragic incident in an African mine, a miner successfully donned a self-rescuer and started to escape, but at some point mistook the hot air in his self-rescuer for a malfunction and doffed it. Sadly, he never made it to fresh air.
We recommend training with an actual oxygen-generating cartridge so workers can become familiarized with these breathing particularities. In our experience, 15min of real breathing conditions is enough to understand what it is like. The case of the self-rescuer and the air in the breathing system will heat up to their working temperature of about 50°C, and the user will have to breathe with a little more force and will receive increased moisture and oxygen – exactly as would be with a real self-rescuer in an actual emergency.
The third risk, I think, is more complex and more difficult to address, because it involves modelling a real emergency. We recommend using oxygen cartridges with longer, up to 50min, working duration to train escape. In DTEK, this training program involves waiting for help, as well as walking with a regular and high physical load so that users can experience breathing at different levels of lung ventilation and higher levels of oxygen concentration in the blood in special premises equipped with a smoke-generating machine. This is the closest we can make it to actual emergency conditions and address the whole spectrum of possible risk: disorientation, high oxygen demand, and various possible activities, like running or crawling.
We are actively promoting our complex training system in all markets. Legislation is very different everywhere: some countries only require training on donning; others have advanced to requiring training with oxygen cartridges. On the other hand, there is a worrying tendency to slacken safety standards, as like in Ukraine, where there have been repeated attempts to remove escape training from the list of necessary training procedures.
If national safety standards are compromised, it must be industry leadership that keeps the lives of people in the forefront. A dedicated safety manager can do more than the law requires, and it pays off. In close cooperation with our client DTEK, we have developed an efficient and cost-effective training program that tackles all three groups of risks and prepares miners to face an actual emergency. We are glad to have found an involved and pro-active safety partner, eager to do more for the safety of miners. As we think here, in DEZEGA and DTEK, human life is priceless. We can never do too much to protect it.