|Safety at Britannia
Mining has often been thought of as a dangerous profession and historically it was. Safety issues ranged from handling explosives and powerful equipment to risks such as gas build-up, cave-ins, and dust. When the Britannia Mine opened safety procedures were essentially non-existent. The first small step was taken in 1923. The company offered St. Johns Ambulance courses and encouraged workers to take them. In 1926, the Britannia Mining and Smelting Company trophy was first presented and the competition for it would become a major annual event. Operations, attitudes and policies changed. In 1958, Britannia Mine received an award of honor from the National Safety Council, recognizing Britannia as having the greatest safety improvement of any mine in Canada. Britannia’s safety record was acknowledged and cemented its reputation as one of the safest mines of the day.
Mining comes with hazards both above and below ground. At Britannia, the steep mountains presented challenges such as landslides and floods. In fact the 1915 Jane Camp landslide and the 1921 flood are both considered among the worst natural disasters in Canadian history. These two disasters claimed the lives of ninety-two men, women, and children.
Caring for the People
In the early days, workers took their chances going underground. By the early 1930s, protecting the miners lungs and health became a priority. To address the issue of Silicosis, miners were required to carry a breathing apparatus. Davy Lamps, escape respirators and full SCBA gear were just some of the safety equipment that was provided to enhance mine safety.
The underground provided unique challenges - lighting for example. In the early days, candles were used yet provided minimal light. Working underground is dangerous. Working by candle light greatly increases the danger. In the 1920s head mountable carbide lamps improved working conditions. Carbide lamps produce acetylene gas - the same gas used in cutting and welding torches. While a hands-free improvement from the candle, imagine wearing the carbide lamp seen above on your head. In the 1930s battery powered head lamps were introduced for men working with explosives but battery packs were heavy. Battery packs eventually got smaller and less cumbersome for workers.
Originally, candles were placed on spikes then tacked into the wall. Carbide lamps were clipped onto soft caps. These were basically baseball caps with a clip on the front. They provided little protection. When hard hats were introduced in the 1930s, workers had to be convinced of their effectiveness. Salesmen went so far as to place a hard hat on their head and then hit it with a hammer. Within a few years all Britannia underground workers had to wear hard hats.
By the end, most mine workers were trained in Mine Safety and Mine Rescue. The communities delighted in the achievements of the Britannia Mine Rescue squad in competitions. One of their trophies is on display in our A to Z of Britannia exhibit. Workers took pride and this made Britannia one of the safest mines of its day.