Inside the mine, fine coal dust – an unavoidable result of carving away at a coal face – was everywhere. This ever-present coal dust was primarily responsible for the chronic respiratory conditions that miners would develop over time. Over time, miners developed numerous methods to control the amount of coal dust floating through the mine, including spraying the coal face with water and a method known as rock dusting. Rock dusting involved the application of a fine rock powder – the most common was limestone – to limit the dust that would arise from mining activities.
Besides the coal dust that filled the mine, there were numerous dangerous gases that posed a hazard to miners and the mine itself. Known as damps, these gases could be present in a variety of combinations. The three most notable gases were known as firedamp, white damp, and blackdamp. Firedamp, or methane, was and is found in nearly every mine, along with a diluted methane-air mixture. Both varieties of firedamp are formed by the natural decomposition process and are highly combustible. White damp is usually only found in a mine after an explosion, a fire, or sometimes the blasting process. White damp is highly poisonous; the primary component is carbon monoxide. The third dangerous gas, blackdamp, is mostly carbon dioxide and received its name because the presence of blackdamp would dim a miner’s lamp, removing the oxygen from an area. In the presence of a black damp, a miner could rapidly lose consciousness and frequently die of suffocation or choking.
In addition to the immediate and short term health risks posed to miners, coal dust and these gases also posed a more immediate problem: they could cause mine explosions. When mixed with the variety of gases (damps) found in a typical mine, coal dust increased the potential for a fatal explosion, which is one reason why controlling coal dust was a priority in the mines.
Coal mining has always been one of the world’s most dangerous occupations, and the mines of Roslyn were subject to the same collapses, cave-ins, and fires as mines the world over.
The greatest immediate danger for a coal miner, from the earliest days of mining to the present day, has always been the threat of falling rock and collapse of the mine itself. Not only could falling rock and debris crush miners instantly, but it could also block off mine passages and air shafts, both vital for surviving a mine disaster. Experienced miners learned to interpret the creaking and shifting of the overburden above their heads, alert to any indication of imminent collapse.