Like any other form of mining, coal mining has from its earliest days been beset by problems of flooding, roof collapse and shaft accidents. However, the additional problem that set coal mining apart was the problem of firedamp (i.e. methane) explosions.
The earliest recorded accident caused by firedamp is believed to have taken place in a pit in Gateshead. In the register of St Mary's Church, under the date 14 October, 1621, is recorded the interment of "Richard Backas burn'd in a pit". By 1675 fairly full descriptions of firedamp explosions were available. Mr Jessop of Broomhall, Yorkshire, communicated his views in the Philosophical Translations of the Royal Society in that year. Referring to four different sorts of damp (dampf = vapour, in German) he wrote: "The fourth, which they also call a damp, is that vapour, which being touched by their candle presently takes fire, and giving a crack like a gun produceth the like effects, or rather those of lightning ...... At Wingersworth, two miles beyond Chesterfield, within this month or five weeks, a coal pit of Sir F Humblocks hath been fired four times by this vapour, and hath hurt four several men."
In a later communication in the same year Mr Jessop remarked, "I never heard of damps that kindled of themselves although I have been told that in some places they have been kindled by the motion of the sled in which they draw their coals. Damps generally are considered to be heavier than air but this was manifestly lighter, for it lay towards the top of the bink."
Thus, over three hundred years ago, Mr Jessop identified naked lights and frictional sources as causes of ignition and correctly identified firedamp as being less dense than air.
The 18th century saw the beginnings of the transformation of the coal mining industry from one based essentially on the mechanical effort of men and horses to one based on steam power. A Newcomen steam engine was used for pumping out water from a pit in Staffordshire in 1712 and the use of steam engines for pumping then spread rapidly; by the end of the century steam power was also in use for coal transport. Improvements to pumping led to large increases in output (by 1767 the first 100,000 tons/yr coal mine had developed) but also aggravated safety problems; as workings became deeper the methane content of the coal seams tended to become greater and ventilation of the workings became more difficult. The death toll from explosions also increased and in 1812 an explosion occurred at Brandling Main which resulted in the loss of 92 lives, the worst death toll to that date.
Other technological changes brought increased hazards. Gunpowder came into use about the middle of the l8th century for shaft sinking and at Middleton Colliery, near Leeds, gunpowder was involved in an explosion during the sinking of a shaft in 1758. The need for improved ventilation led to the use of fire baskets in upcast shafts or chimneys to induce a greater flow of air through the workings; these, in their turn, acted as ignition sources on more than one occasion. The need for a "safe" source of illumination to replace naked lights in gassy mines led to the development of the flint and steel mill some time between 1730 and 1750.
This hand operated device gave a shower of sparks that produced a feeble source of illumination; for many years it was thought that these sparks could not act as a source of ignition, but by the end of the century evidence had accumulated that pointed to their involvement as a source of ignition under some conditions. John Buddle, an eminent mining engineer of the Tyne and Wear District, who made extensive studies of safety aspects of mining, believed that ignition only happened when the mills were played near the point where the gas was discharged.
John Buddle made many contributions to mining safety. He collected statistics on fatal accidents in the Tyne and Wear District from coroners' records and other local sources as far back as 1710; he made substantial improvements to ventilation layouts and the efficiency of ventilation; in 1803 he made the novel observation that coal dust could be actively involved in firedamp explosions.
Because of the difficulties of ventilation the process of firing accumulations of flammable gas at intervals was still practised in the latter part of the l8th century.
Galloway quotes the following description of
"During this operation all the workmen were withdrawn from the mine save only those actually engaged, known as the 'fire men'. The underground stables were usually adopted as the base of operations, and were strongly barricaded for the purpose. From this point a copper wire, termed the 'firing line', was led to the part of the mine where gas was supposed to have accumulated. Approaching as near to the place of danger as was consistent with their own safety, the firemen raised the wire aloft by means of a long pole (or series of poles fitting into each other like a fishing rod) provided with a small wheel, or sheave, at the extremity, for carrying the line. Having fixed the pole in the required position, and secured to the end of the line on the floor of the mine a lighted candle weighted with a piece of lead to keep it steady, the firemen retired to the stable, where, pulling in the wire through a crevice, they elevated the lighted candle at the other end and so exploded the gas. If the collection of gas was considerable, as was frequently the case, a violent explosion ensued, which passed the firemen in the retreat with a thundering noise and with great velocity." In some instances, this dangerous operation had to be repeated several times a day!
At the beginning of the l9th century, the first
signs of an organised approach to the problems of safety in mines
became apparent. On 1 October 1813 the Sunderland Society was set
up for the express purpose of preventing accidents in mines. The
first report of the Society contained a letter from John Buddle
giving a detailed account of the ventilation of collieries,
"the only method we are at present acquainted with for the
prevention of accidents by fire". Buddle stressed the need for
some means of rendering firedamp innocuous as it approached the
neighbourhood of lights and concluded:
"In this view of the subject it is to scientific men only that we must look up for assistance in providing a cheap and effective remedy".
Acting on this advice, the Sunderland Society approached Sir Humphry Davy of the Royal Institution. Due to his absence abroad, it was not until August 1815 that Sir Humphry became involved with the problem. Thereafter, things moved swiftly.
Sir Humphry arrived in the coal field on 23 August 1815 where he was given all the available information. John Buddle later recorded "I explained to him as well as I was able the nature of our fiery mines and that the great desideratum was a light that could be safely used in an explosive mixture. I had not the slightest idea myself of ever seeing such a thing accomplished. Just as we were parting he looked at me and said, "I think I can do something for you .
Events justified Sir Humphry's confidence. After continuing his tour of the coalfield he returned to London about 30 September. Assisted in his work by Michael Faraday, he rapidly discovered that explosion flames would not propagate along metallic tubes of certain lengths and diameters and indeed that the apertures alone, if sufficiently small, were sufficient to arrest an explosion. By the middle of October he had constructed a lamp which was rendered safe by the use of such apertures and by the end of 1815 further developments had led to the wire gauze safety lamp, afterwards known as the Davy lamp. Davy described the wire gauze as "the metallic tissue permeable to light and air and impermeable to flame". This important scientific principle led to whole new safety technologies which are still in use today.
Independently of Sir Humphry Davy, Dr Clanny had developed a form of safety lamp in 1812 which relied on water seals on the air inlet and product outlet to prevent flame transmission. It was effective in not causing ignitions but inconvenient in use and did not find widespread acceptance. George Stephenson, then a colliery engineer but later to become famous as a railway engineer, also developed a form of safety lamp in August-November 1815.
Although the Davy lamp found widespread acceptance, it also had its critics. A Select Committee of the House of Commons in 1835 observed that:
- 'seams of coal so fiery as to have lain unwrought have been approached and worked by the aid of the safety lamp';
- 'the idea was entertained, that on the introduction of that lamp the need for former precautions and vigilance in great measure ceased';
- 'Your Committee are constrained to believe, that ignorance and a false reliance on its merits, in cases attended with unwarrantable risks, have led to disastrous consequences'.
This illustrates some further problems with safety developments - using them to extend the range of conditions regarded as acceptably safe, improper use and expecting too much of them all of which can inhibit their acceptance.
A series of Acts of Parliament from 1842 onwards led to the development of the Mines Inspectorate in more or less its present form, from a single inspector with very limited power appointed in 1842 to a permanently established team with extensive powers to enforce safety legislation.
A further insight into the problem of mine explosions came in 1844 when Michael Faraday again drew attention to the effect of coal dust in extending the flame of an explosion.
Dr William Galloway, a junior inspector of mines, took this work further by studying several large mine explosions and by experiments. He concluded that it was coal dust rather than firedamp that was responsible for the major spread of flame. This conclusion was so unpopular that Dr Galloway was forced to resign his appointment as a mines inspector! Despite this setback, Dr Galloway went on to become Sir William Galloway, Professor of Mining at University College, Cardiff.
The fatal accident record of the industry in the last quarter of the l9th century and early part of the 20th century is summarised in the table below.
|*** Underground fatalities are recorded in the five right-hand columns of this table ***|
Despite all the legislative and technological progress, the annual toll of fatalities remained close to 1000 per year. One encouraging sign was the downward trend in the fatalities due to explosions; the figures for 1903 and 1904 showed what could be achieved but the figure for 1905 gave a sharp reminder of the potential for disaster in coal mining. A more powerful reminder was given by the massive explosion at Courrieres Mine in the Pas de Calais coalfield in 1906, in which 1100 miners were killed in circumstances that pointed unequivocally to the involvement of coal dust as the main fuel.
The research activities that followed played a significant part in the combined efforts of management, work force, inspectors and equipment manufacturers which transformed the safety record of the mining industry. The figures for 1983 are given in the table above as a basis for comparison.
The role of coal dust in mine explosions was a source of controversy throughout the l9th century. Since there was no way of mining coal without generating coal dust and no apparent means of eliminating the possible involvement of coal dust in explosions, there was very strong resistance to the concept of coal dust as a major safety problem.
Following the pioneering observations of Buddle and Faraday, referred to previously, there were several sets of experiments on coal dust explosions between 1875 and 1893 in Britain, France and Germany. In Germany, a surface gallery made of wood reinforced with iron bands with a cross section 5 ft. 8 in. by 3 ft. 11 in. and a length of 167 ft. 3 in. was in use in 1884. In Britain, Professor Galloway conducted experiments in galleries up to 2 ft. square and 126 ft. long while H Hall (an inspector of mines) conducted experiments in mine shafts and adits. Because of continuing controversy a Royal Commission was appointed on 9 February 1891 'to enquire into the effect of coal dust in originating or extending explosions in mines, whether by itself or in conjunction with firedamp; and also to ensure whether there are any practical means of preventing or mitigating any dangers that may arise from the presence of coal dust in mines.' In their Report, published in 1894, the Commission concluded that:
(a) The danger of explosion in a mine in which gas exists, even in very small quantities, is greatly increased by the presence of coal dust.
(b) A gas explosion in a fiery mine may be intensified and carried on indefinitely, by coal dust raised by the explosion itself.
(c) Coal dust alone, without the presence of any gas at all, may cause a dangerous explosion if ignited by a blown out shot or other violent inflammation. To produce such a result, however, the conditions must be exceptional, and are only likely to be produced on rare occasions.
(d) Different dusts are inflammable, and consequently dangerous, in varying degrees; but it cannot be said with absolute certainty that any dust is entirely free from risk.
(e) There appears to be no probability that a dangerous explosion of coal dust alone could ever be produced in a mine by a naked light or ordinary flame.'
Despite the weight of evidence presented by the Royal Commission, many dissenting views were still expressed, chiefly on the grounds of lack of realism in gallery experiments.
W E Garforth, in evidence to the Commission, stated that the nearer the conditions of the experiment approached to those of a mine, the better it would bring home the information.
A further Royal Commission was appointed in 1906 'to enquire into and report on certain questions relating to the health and safety of miners'. This Commission appointed a committee to report on the research work that was required to resolve the coal dust explosion question. The committee recommended that large-scale experiments should be undertaken without delay and that these should be undertaken in a 7 ft. 6 in. diameter wrought iron gallery; a sum of £10,000 would be required to cover the cost of constructing the gallery, equipping it with plant and instrumentation and for labour, materials and incidental expenses. The committee was guided in these matters by the experience of W E Garforth who had conducted some experiments in a 6 ft. diameter gallery at Altofts Colliery in 1906.
Negotiations then took place between the Mining Association (representing the owners), the Government, the Treasury and the Royal Commission with a view to providing the necessary funds. The Government declined to contribute and the Mining Association decided to meet the entire cost by means of a levy on a tonnage basis on all collieries in membership of the Association. W E Garforth was asked to supervise the experiments and the gallery was erected in a field adjoining Messrs Pope and Pearson's collieries at Altofts, Yorkshire.
R V Wheeler was appointed Chief Chemist for the work.
Instructions to proceed with the work were given in February 1908 and, by using second hand boiler shells, the gallery was completed in May 1908. The first experiment was held on 12 May 1908. The Report of the Committee thanks 'the tenants of houses in the neighbourhood for the considerate way in which they have borne the inconvenience consequent on the proximity of the Experimental Station.' In all, 116 experiments were carried out successfully between 12 May 1908 and 22 October 1909, with one important exception.
The main object of experiment No. 25 on 11 August 1908 is given as: 'To see whether increased length of coal dust would develop greater explosion pressure.' It did. The result of the experiment is given as: 'Very violent explosion. Flame shot out a great distance from the downcast end. The three boiler shells forming the end of the intake completely wrecked; pieces blown into the air and radially to a distance of 1150 ft.'
Nevertheless, experiment No. 26 took place on 14 August (in a somewhat shorter gallery), when several French mining engineers were present as observers. Throughout the series a total of 800 visitors representing coal owners, colliery officials, inspectors of mines and scientists from the UK, India, South Africa, France, Germany and the USA witnessed experiments at Altofts; the report observes that the demonstrations convey an impression of the danger in a more vivid manner than can be given by mere verbal warnings or by the writing of scientific papers on the subject.
Two key paragraphs in the reports on the work at Altofts summarise the major achievements there:
'The fact that coal dust, in the complete absence of firedamp, is explosive raised as a cloud in air and ignited, has, in the opinion of all who have witnessed the experiments, been definitely established. The information which the Royal Commission on Accidents in Mines desired the members of the Mining Association to furnish has thus been obtained, and the controversy which has existed for more than a quarter of a century has been finally set at rest.'
'As regards the finding of a remedy for coal dust explosions as an alternative to watering, a study of the experiments that have been made with stone dust will show that the efforts of the Committee in this direction seem to have been attended with a large measure of success.'
The Committee was right in its judgement. The subsequent introduction of general stone dusting to British mines, to reduce the explosibility of the dust present in the mine by diluting the coal dust with an inert substance, did much to control the coal dust explosion problem.
A control measure of this type had been suggested as early as 1884 and the Altofts work began the long task of establishing the detailed requirements of the technique.
In 1910, the Mining Association approached the Royal Commission on Mines to see if the Government would fund a continuation of the work and offered to lend the Government the experimental plant and apparatus for this purpose. After some delay, the Government agreed to fund the setting up of a new experimental station and the first meeting of the Explosion in Mines Committee, which would supervise the work, was held at the Home Office on 11 May 1911, thus opening a new chapter in the story; for the first time the Government was directly involved in safety in mines research.
The Altofts site was no longer available and, after the examination of numerous sites, a piece of land on the sea shore was chosen near Eskmeals in Cumberland, adjoining a gun range owned by Vickers. The site was located among sand hills but was served by a railway. The large gallery was moved from Altofts to Eskmeals and a smaller gallery 3 ft. in diameter and 400 ft. long was installed alongside. Various service buildings, a physical and chemical laboratory and the official Safety Lamp Testing Station were also erected on the site.
Because of the remoteness of the site, a house was built next to the laboratory for the Chief Chemist, a position to which Dr Wheeler was reappointed. The Government funds were insufficient to pay for the house and £1500 was provided by the Mining Association for this purpose.
The first report of the Home Office Experimental Station, published on 21 June 1912, dealt in the main with the setting up of the station but also reported a study by Professor Beattie of Sheffield University dealing with the possible harmful effects of stone dust on the health of miners. This study concluded that the stone dust used in the Altofts tests was comparable to coal dust in its effects on men and ponies and did not represent an additional health hazard.
Six other reports were issued in the period up to July 1915. Reports 2-6 dealt with various aspects of explosion propagation in mixtures of coal dust, stone dust, firedamp and air both in laboratory and in gallery experiments. Report 7 by Dr J S Haldane returned to the theme of health effects of stone dust and supported Professor Beattie's view that shale dust, as used at Altofts, could be used safely for stone dusting in mines. Significantly, Dr Haldane added: 'It is desirable from the point of view of health to reduce, as far as is practicable, the inhalation of any kind of dust in mines.'
During the war years the explosion galleries at Eskmeals were not used, although some other work continued. The Explosion in Mines Committee was dissolved in 1914 and the Experimental Station was placed in the charge of Dr Wheeler who was directly responsible to the Home Office. Buildings, plant and equipment were in a serious state of deterioration by the end of the war and work on mining problems was accumulating.
In 1919 the main work areas at Eskmeals were: flame propagation in firedamp, electrical ignition of gases, spontaneous combustion of coal, analysis of mine air and dust samples and testing of safety lamps, signalling bells and relays. The explosion galleries remained unused.
In December 1919 a Departmental Committee of the Home Office was appointed 'to advise as to the nature and scope of the work to be carried on at the Home Office Experimental Station at Eskmeals and as to whether any changes are desirable in the control and organisation of the Station.'
The Departmental Committee reported on 31 July 1920 with many recommendations. One of them, although unadopted, is very interesting: 'research into ...... the safety of industrial operations should come under the direction of one central body; and further, that such researches should be kept quite distinct from those that have a purely economic aim.'
Other recommendations included 'the provision of funds for the carrying out of research on safety in mines by means of a levy on the industry' and the recommendation that routine testing and analysis should be 'coupled with research and not conducted independently, lest it become stereotyped and unimaginative.' The major changes stemmed from the recommendation that 'arrangements should be made for the transference at once of laboratory research work and routine testing (safety lamps, etc) to some more accessible place, leaving the large-scale work to be carried out at Eskmeals for the present. It will be understood that the ultimate aim should be to transfer the whole Experimental Station to a more accessible place, within easy reach of the research laboratories if not on the same site.'
The smaller-scale work was progressively moved to temporary accommodation in Sheffield. The galleries were renovated for seasons of experiments held on Sundays in 1922 and 1923. These were witnessed by many hundreds of visitors, sometimes five or six hundred at a time; often, the visitors were from a single coalfield and they witnessed an explosion of coal dust from their own coalfield. Each visitor received lunch and tea which, for a remote area like Eskmeals was, in itself, an achievement. One Lancashire miner remarked, "The explosion was very good, but man, the tuck-out was champion."
However, by 1924, the 7 ft. 6 in. gallery had been damaged by explosions and experimental work on the site ceased; usable sections of the galleries were transferred to a new Experimental Station at Buxton.
In 1920, the Mining Industry Act established the Mines Department of the Board of Trade for the purpose of securing 'the safety and welfare of those engaged in the mining industry'. The Act created a fund for 'the social well-being, recreation and conditions of living of workers in or about coal mines and mining education and research'. The coal mine owners paid one penny per ton of coal output into the Miners' Welfare Fund, which was controlled by the Miners' Welfare Committee. The Committee included a member nominated by the Mining Association of Great Britain and another by the Miners' Federation of Great Britain. The station at Eskmeals became the Mines Department Experimental Station.
The Safety in Mines Research Board (SMRB) had its origins when the Secretary for Mines appointed the Mining Dangers Research Board on 11 July 1921 'to direct generally the work of research of the Mines Department into the causes of mining dangers and the means for preventing such dangers and to undertake the re-organisation of existing arrangements for carrying out such work at the Mines Department Experimental Station'. The change in name came at the Board's request in May 1922.
The Secretary for Mines requested funding from the Miners' Welfare Committee. The Committee was willing to provide a considerable sum for research into health and safety problems in the mining industry conducted under the direction of the Board. In addition, the Committee delegated to the Board the job of advising on applications made for grants from the Miners' Welfare Fund for research work.
The Board's research work was done either by staff working under a special Committee which reported to the Board (as in the case of research on explosives and on the control of atmospheric conditions in deep and hot mines). A Treasury grant was given for maintaining the work previously done at Eskmeals and elsewhere for the Home Office and the Mines Department.
The Eskmeals Experimental Station was improved on a temporary basis, and coal dust explosion experiments were continued. Statutory testing of lamps, mine air and dust samples, bells and relays, rescue apparatus and explosives also continued. At the end of 1921 research work on flame propagation, ignition of gases and spontaneous combustion of coal was being done at Eskmeals and Sheffield University; research on safety lamps was being done at Eskmeals and Birmingham University; life and efficiency tests on bulbs for miners' electric lamps were being done at Eskmeals. A close association with Sheffield University arose as Professor Wheeler now held the posts of Director of the Mines Department Experimental Station and Professor of Fuel Technology at Sheffield University.
The Miners' Welfare Committee agreed in 1922 to finance a new experimental station and the search began for suitable sites. The first survey of possible sites identified a site at Rugely and one at Gretna as the most promising. Because of existing rail connections the site at Gretna was considered the more suitable but this was eventually turned down because it was felt that the main laboratories should be close to a major university with the possibility of a field laboratory reasonably close by.
The search was resumed for a field laboratory site in a position central to the coal fields, near a university town, with good access, adequate space and living accommodation nearby. An important qualification was that 'it must not be near any working coal mine, experience at Altofts having shown that the experimental explosions were mistaken for mine explosions and caused alarm to the mining population'.
By the end of 1923 no suitable site had been located; a possible site at Castleton was too restricted for future developments, one at Edale had no road or rail access, one at Ford, only 8 miles from Sheffield, was liable to flooding and one at Rufford Forest near Mansfield was judged to be too close to working coal mines.
Early in 1924, however, a site was found at the Frith, Harpur Hill, near Buxton, which appeared to meet all the requirements, and negotiations began for its acquisition. Fortunately for the search, a small coalfield near Buxton ceased operation in 1921, the nearest coal mine entrance being about 2 miles from the chosen site. After 'protracted and difficult negotiations' a 411 acre site was leased with the required access and services and in reasonable proximity to Sheffield and Manchester.
Particular advantages of the site were a 1500 ft. stretch of level ground on which the explosion galleries could be installed immediately (this was a disused stretch of the Cromford and High Peak Railway which was diverted locally in 1875) and the previous use of the site: 'No trouble will be caused by our experimental explosions as the site was used during the War for testing guns and for bomb practice and there are quarries adjoining where blasting is constantly in progress'.
Development of the Buxton site proceeded quickly, once the lease had been signed, and by June 1926 experimental work at the experimental station was in full swing; the official opening took place on 14 June 1927.
Meanwhile, the search for a main laboratory site had proved much simpler. It had been decided at the end of 1922 to move all the Board's work, apart from large-scale gallery experiments, away from Eskmeals and this work was rehoused in temporary accommodation close to Sheffield University. This general location proved very satisfactory and in 1924 the University offered the Board a lease on a site for main laboratories adjacent to the University site in Portobello Street. The offer was accepted and the Board erected a four storey building on the site which was opened on 11 October 1928 by the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon Stanley Baldwin.
The provision of these major facilities on a long term basis represented a very significant step forward for the Board's activities. From that time on its work developed on a broad front with comprehensive coverage of mine safety and health problems. So far, the discussion has been mainly in terms of the work on explosions because this problem, in terms of public perception, dominated the safety issue and it formed the most clearly defined 'ancestry' for SMRB's work. However, it is now appropriate to review other areas of work.
In its first report the Board records its decision not to undertake research on health matters itself. Instead, it would discuss health matters with the Health Advisory Committee of the Mines Department (Chairman Dr Haldane) and, where appropriate, commission research work with the Medical Research Council. Reflecting the working conditions of the day, early work under this heading was on nystagmus, beat hand and beat knee and the control of atmospheric conditions in deep and hot mines. By 1924, work on silicosis and on nutrition of miners had been added.
Throughout the history of mining, the support of underground workings has been one of the major safety problems. Timber was the traditional method of supporting workings but in 1924 the Board noted that 'In recent years various forms of masonry or brick arches have been more and more used in roadways and the use of steel ribs supporting brick or timber linings has been introduced'.
The need for large-scale laboratory tests was acknowledged and arrangements were made for such work to begin at the City and Guilds Engineering College, South Kensington (part of Imperial College).
The Board set up a Mechanical Appliances Committee to examine ideas submitted by inventors. In 1924, for example, 56 devices were examined, 18 relating to cage arresting and cage safety, 27 to tub arresting and tub fittings and the remainder to a variety of topics. None of these were judged worthy of support but they reflect the broadening of interests of the Board.
In 1924, the Board commissioned a report by Dr Scoble of the Wire Ropes Research Committee of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers on best current practice on the selection, use and treatment of mining ropes. Research on the safety of wire ropes later developed at Imperial College.
At the request of the Health Advisory Committee, the Board undertook an investigation with the object of devising a method of trapping the dust produced by mechanical drills, with special reference to injurious rock dust.
Gallery experiments on the liability of explosives to ignite firedamp were carried out as early as 1875. The l877 Coal Mines Regulations Act introduced the concept of a mining explosive 'of such a nature that it would not inflame gas or coal dust'. The introduction of many types of 'flameless explosives' followed with varying degrees of success and the 1896 Coal Mines Regulation Act gave the Home Office powers to prescribe what explosives might be used in mines and the manner of their use. Following this, a station for testing explosives for use in coal mines was erected at Woolwich and opened for testing in June 1897. The testing work was transferred from Woolwich to a new testing station at Rotherham which opened in July 1912.
From 1922 to 1924, research work on explosives was carried out at Eskmeals, at Nobel's Explosives Company factory at Ardeer and at Sheffield but, as the Buxton site became operational, research and testing work was concentrated there from 1925 onwards.
Tests with flammable gas, to ascertain whether the enclosure of electrical apparatus was effective to prevent the emission of flame in a condition which would cause ignition of a surrounding atmosphere, were suggested to a Departmental Committee on the Use of Electricity in Mines in 1905. Official approval of such apparatus was suggested to a 1909/10 Departmental Committee but this was rejected. In consequence, some manufacturers set up their own testing plant but the demand for an independent testing authority continued. In 1921 the Mining Department of the University of Sheffield began research work on flameproof equipment in collaboration with the Safety in Mines Research Board and with the British Electrical and Allied Industries Research Association (later the Electrical Research Association - ERA - and now ERA Technology Ltd).
In 1922, the University of Sheffield agreed to start testing commercial equipment submitted by individual manufacturers for flameproofness. SMRB undertook to continue research on design details in conjunction with ERA. The first flameproof certificate was issued by the University on 14 August 1922.
Under the 1905 Regulations, bare signal wires were permitted on haulage roads provided that the applied voltage did not exceed 15 volts in any one circuit and an exemption in the 1911 Regulations permitted this practice to continue for installations in use before 1 June 1911. On 14 October 1913 the greatest disaster in the history of British coal mining took place at Senghenydd Colliery, when 439 miners were killed in an explosion. The Inquiry heard evidence from Dr Wheeler which showed that the signalling equipment could have acted as a source of ignition and from Professor Thornton of Armstrong College, Newcastle on Tyne, which showed that such circuits could be made safe by relatively simple modifications. This drew attention to the concept of intrinsic safety of electrical circuits.
Tests on the safety of bells for use in mines were carried out at Eskmeals from 1917. The work was subsequently extended to include relays; it was transferred to Sheffield in 1925. Certificates were not issued at that time but complete records of tests of acceptability were kept.
The Board sponsored research on spontaneous combustion of coal at Birmingham University and at the Lancashire and Cheshire Coal Research Association.
After the initial phase of activity, SMRB and its laboratory activities continued to develop steadily. In the period up to 1930, 61 reports were published, covering, in addition to topics already discussed: - the estimation of firedamp: flame caps; - the pressures produced by electric arcs in closed vessels; - the ignition of firedamp by the heat of impact of rocks; - steel pit props;- mine rescue apparatus: The SMRB gas mask; - the effect of the rate of cooling on the structure and constitution of steel.
The facilities also continued to develop.
A 'gob fire' chamber for the study of spontaneous combustion was among the original buildings at Buxton. This was damaged by an internal explosion in 1927, rebuilt and extended in 1928, damaged again in 1932, rebuilt and extended in 1933.
An explosives research building and a building for testing coal cutters in gassy atmospheres were added at Buxton in 1928. In that year also part of the 4 ft. explosion gallery was damaged and work was started on a new explosion gallery consisting of a tunnel 7 ft. high and 700 ft. long driven through the hillside, under the 4 ft. gallery, at a cost of £7230.
The prime purpose of this gallery was demonstrations of coal dust explosions to parties of visiting miners.
Great importance was attached to this type of work and a separate financial provision was made for 'Safety Training'.
It was considered that an underground explosion gallery would be more convincing to visitors than shots in the 4 ft. gallery. In addition, the following provisions were made at Buxton for parties of visitors over the years.
- 1928 New block with dining hall for 180 visitors, plus overnight accommodation for visiting staff;
- 1932 Exhibition Hall and model mine face and roadway ('model' here means 'demonstration' rather than 'small scale'; the face and the roadway were each about 30 ft. long and of normal cross section);
- 1935 An additional exhibition hall.
In 1935 it was noted that:
'The number of applications to visit demonstrations was so great during 1935 that, apart from the Whitsuntide and August Bank Holiday weekends, every Saturday and Sunday from the l2th May to l5th September was occupied in receiving large parties and several week-day demonstrations were given as well. The total number of visitors was 5,437 ...... ' Of these, 3288 were youths attending safety classes as part of their training. In connection with these visits, prizes were offered for essays on 'The subject that interested me most at the Research Station, Buxton'. The coal dust explosion featured in most of the entries:
'The explosion itself was not as terrifying as we had been led to believe but the results were indeed tremendous ...... I am sure that the thought that crossed everyone's mind was what the effects of such an explosion would be like down the mine itself ......' With the resilience of youth, this particular author concluded that the explosion was the high spot of the visit, with dinner a good second!
- 1937 One wing of the administration building was converted into a lecture hall, by providing a new building elsewhere for coal dust explosion studies. This new facility could seat up to 400 visitors.
In 1937, 6153 visitors came to the site and 110 lectures were given off site to more than 10,000 people. The system was beginning to show signs of strain under this massive training load and various alternatives were under consideration when the outbreak of war curtailed this activity.
During the 1930s, SMRB's interests extended to include fatigue testing of components, protective equipment, and noise reduction. Braking on steep gradients and derailments were also studied on model and full gauge tracks at Buxton.
While these developments had been taking place under the auspices of SMRB, there had been independent but closely related developments in testing services for mining equipment.
Routine methods had been established at Eskmeals for the analysis of mine air and mine dust samples and for the testing of lamps and a small (but widening) range of safety appliances; these were handled by a small testing staff. When Eskmeals was dismantled a separate testing station was established by the Mines Department in Arundel Street, Sheffield. From 1925 the function of the testing station was: to test, with a view to official approval, mine safety lamps, bells, relays, telephones and magneto exploders; to test and report on apparatus impounded by HM Inspectors of Mines; to analyse mine air and mine dust samples; and to do any additional testing.
The Director of the Research Stations was appointed Advisory Testing Officer to the Mines Department but separation of testing from research did not prove very satisfactory; because of the developments in manufacturing technology, new test methods were needed and the testing staff had little time to spend on research. The Testing Station was transferred to the SMRB building in Portobello Street, Sheffield, to bring about more effective co-operation between research and testing staff. At about the same time the Mines Department took over the responsibility of flameproof testing. The work at Sheffield University was wound up and the responsibility transferred in April 1931. The Mines Department Testing Station was built on the Buxton site, and the first test was made on 15 July 1931. The work of the testing station was placed under the direction of HM Electrical Inspector of Mines and was funded by the Mines Department.
In 1939 Professor Wheeler died, after more than 30 years at the forefront of this work, and a successor was not appointed because of difficulties with the war. The Assistant Director, Chief Mining Engineer and Chief Executive Officer were put in charge of their respective spheres of work under the direction of a Governing Committee. Dr H C Coward became Acting Director of the Experimental Stations.
A Royal Commission on Safety in Coal Mines published its recommendations in 1938. It recommended close interchange and co-operation between the staff of the research stations, testing stations and Inspectorate. It recommended that the research stations should become part of the Mines Department and the staff should become civil servants like the testing staff. It also recommended that the Research Board should be consultative and advisory instead of mainly administrative. These recommendations were implemented in stages.
In 1940, part of the staff time was spent on work for the Ministry of Defence and from 1942 onwards the Government made substantial payments for services rendered to Government Departments.
The Mines Department became part of the Ministry of Fuel and Power in 1941 and SMRB became responsible to the Minister of Fuel and Power. In 1943 the Government supplied extra funding to increase dissemination of information at new training centres for miners, and extra staff were taken on.
The Minister of Fuel and Power in consultation and agreement with the Miners' Welfare Commission (previously the Miners' Welfare Committee) and with the approval of the Treasury decided that the responsibility for financing SMRB's work should be transferred by stages from the Commission to the Exchequer so that eventually full financial responsibility would be with the Minister. The Commission's annual grants were reduced by stages and the contributions from the Exchequer correspondingly increased.
During the war years, SMRB continued to plan for the future and outline development plans were prepared for both the Buxton and Sheffield sites. On the former site provision was needed for building maintenance and improvement and on the latter site the Portobello Street building was proving too small for the work in hand and projected. The lease of the Buxton site was due to terminate in 1945. The Board considered concentrating development on one site but decided against it; a 92-acre portion of the Buxton site was purchased in 1944 as this was deemed sufficient to provide safety areas around the explosion galleries - the remaining 310 acres reverted to the landowner when the lease terminated.
Increases in cases of certified pneumoconiosis led inspectors to take a greater number of airborne dust samples in mines. A laboratory was established in Sheffield at the end of 1944 to evaluate the samples and to investigate airborne dust problems.
The Coal Industry Nationalisation Act 1946 made it the duty of the Ministry of Fuel and Power to undertake research into methods of promoting safety in coal mines. The expenses were provided by Parliament and no further money was to be spent from the Miners' Welfare Fund on health and safety researches. SMRB became part of the Ministry of Fuel and Power.
The Governing Committee, appointed by the Board on the outbreak of war to direct research work, continued to operate until responsibility for the work was transferred from the Board to the Ministry. The Safety in Mines Research Board then ceased to exist.
Following the nationalisation of the coal industry and the transfer of the work of the Safety in Mines Research Board to the Ministry of Fuel and Power, important organisational changes took place.
The work of the research stations at Sheffield and Buxton was brought together with that of the Mining Equipment Testing Station at Sheffield, the Flameproof Testing Station at Buxton and the Dust Control Laboratory at Sheffield to form the Safety in Mines Research and Testing Branch, in the Safety and Health Division of the Ministry.
In 1950 the Branch was transferred to the Chief Scientist's Division of the Ministry of Fuel and Power and renamed the Safety in Mines Research Establishment (SMRE). The Safety and Health Division retained responsibility for approval and certification of mining equipment.
Also in 1950, the Safety in Mines Research Advisory Board was set up 'to keep under review and give advice on the general scope, organisation and progress of the research work of the Ministry of Fuel and Power on safety in mines'. SMRAB had its first meeting on 4 April 1950. With an independent chairman, representatives of the various parties within the coal industry, independent experts on mining and safety problems and government representatives, SMRAB became a valuable forum for discussions on the whole range of mining safety problems; as the central research and development function of the National Coal Board grew, it also provided a forum where SMRE and NCB programmes could be considered side by side and any shortcomings in their combined coverage of safety problems identified.
These organisational and advisory arrangements continued essentially unchanged until l977, although in that time SMRE was attached to different Government Ministries and Departments, as Government reorganisation occurred.
1950-1956 Ministry of Fuel and Power
1956-1969 Ministry of Power
1969-1970 Ministry of Technology
1970-1974 Department of Trade and Industry
1974-1975 Department of Energy
1975-l977 Health and Safety Executive
A major expansion of facilities took place during that time and some appreciable changes occurred in the range of topics covered by SMRE.
The need to improve accommodation in Sheffield beyond the potential of the Portobello Street site, identified by SMRB during the war period, became more pressing. The Mines Support Section and the Winding and Wire Ropes Section, until then housed at Imperial College, had to leave there to make way for expansion of the Royal School of Mines. The Metallurgical Section, housed in Sheffield University, had to leave there to make way for expansion of the Metallurgy Department. These outstationed sections had become major centres of expertise in their respective subjects.
These sections moved to temporary accommodation at Handsworth, Sheffield, while new premises were constructed at Broad Lane, Sheffield, a short distance from Portobello Street on the other side of the University Engineering and Applied Sciences facilities. The Engineering and Metallurgy Sections moved into the new laboratories in Broad Lane at the end of 1956. The laboratories were officially opened by Lord Mills, the Minister of Power, on 25 April 1957.
Following on from this development, new laboratories were planned for the Broad Lane site, as a complete replacement for the Portobello Street facilities. This new laboratory block, on four floors with new facilities such as a climatic chamber for breathing apparatus studies and improved provision for general laboratories, Library and Conference Room, was opened on 14 December 1962 by Viscount Hailsham, the Lord President of the Council and Minister for Science. The facilities at Sheffield were now grouped together on one site in purpose built accommodation.
Considerable changes also took place at Buxton. Work on the control of coal dust explosions had been hampered by the structural weakness of the explosion tunnel, and the small cross section of the 4 ft. diameter explosion gallery. A surface explosion gallery, 1200 ft. long and of arch-shaped cross section 7 ft. high, was therefore constructed.
The design was novel. The gallery was made from reinforced concrete with post tensioning cables and was firmly anchored at one end and laid on a bed of sand to allow some degree of movement as the explosion pressure acted on the structure. A surface gallery was chosen in preference to an underground tunnel for ease of access of instrumentation. The gallery was completed in August 1964 and inaugurated by the Rt. Hon Frederick Lee, the Minister of Power, on 14 May 1965.
A block consisting of laboratory and office accommodation for four sections was completed in 1965. As in the 1930s, Sheffield based engineering sections began to make use of the ample space at Buxton for very large engineering rigs. The most prominent of these was the impact test track, commissioned in 1964, consisting of two rail tracks of different gauge installed on opposite sides of a valley and overlapping in the valley bottom. By this means, very high energy impact loads could be applied to test specimens via a hammer arrangement on one truck and an anvil arrangement on another. The trucks could be loaded as required and impact energies up to 240 ft. ton could be achieved when hammer and anvil met in the valley bottom.
As far as programmes of work were concerned, SMRE effectively ceased work on the control of spontaneous combustion and on roof support problems; these problems were considered to be so closely involved with operational aspects of coal mining that they were more suited to study by the National Coal Board. In contrast, several new major areas of work developed to supplement those that continued from SMRB days.
A series of firedamp explosions in mines in 1956/7 indicated that, while the general principle of diluting firedamp to 1¼ per cent or less with the mine ventilation was successful, there were problems associated with the rate of mixing of firedamp and air; being less dense than air, firedamp could form layers near the roadway roof that were flammable over surprisingly long distances. A Fluid Section was set up at Sheffield to study the buoyancy induced problem of mixing and the Flame Section at Buxton studied flame propagation in methane roof layers. Investigations of some of these explosions were made using perspex scale models of the site of the explosion.
The growing concern over the pneumoconiosis problem led to studies of the movement of respirable dust particles in air streams and methods of measuring respirable dust concentrations, by gravimetric means for personal samplers and by light scattering techniques for on line monitoring of the main ventilation.
The development in the late 1950s of a device that became known as the pellistor marked a major breakthrough in the estimation of firedamp concentration by means of an electrical instrument instead of by relying on the colour and shape changes of the flame on a safety lamp. Relying on catalytic oxidation of the methane as a sensing principle, the pellistor marked a major improvement on previous catalytic detectors by supporting the catalyst on an alumina bead with an internal platinum heater. This arrangement led to large improvements in sensitivity and reliability and made possible the development of portable methanometers and other types of flammable gas detector.
The rapid development of electronics and the increasing complexity of measurements made during experimental work led to the setting up of a Special Instruments Section. This not only developed one-off data measurement and recording systems for other sections, where the specification could not be met by commercially available equipment, but also took developments with commercial potential, such as the pellistor, through to the development prototype stage as an aid to commercial exploitation.
The major fire at Creswell Colliery in 1950 caused SMRAB to request an increase in research efforts on fire hazards in mines. The Fire Section was set up at Buxton in 1950; it made use of the tunnel driven in 1929 for coal dust explosion demonstrations, which proved very suitable for large-scale studies of the behaviour and control of fires in mines. These studies were supplemented by detailed work in reduced-scale models of mine fire situations. An early development was the use of high expansion foam as a fire fighting medium; this technique later found wide application in non-mining fire fighting practice.
A 50-MVA test plant was set up in 1966 to examine the behaviour of flameproof equipment under full electrical loading in the presence of flammable gas. In 1967, a large rock-cutting machine was commissioned to carry out full-scale tests on ignition during rock cutting under closely controlled conditions. Ignitions of methane during cutting operations had become the largest single cause of ignitions in mines, often accounting for more than 75 per cent of the total, and improvements in this situation were considered important.
A major programme of work in the new explosion gallery was the development of a triggered barrier system for explosion suppression relying on the automatic detection of an explosion and the rapid discharge of a large quantity of suppressant into its path.
In this way, the work of SMRE responded to changes in the industry and to the potential for improvement offered by changes in the world of instrumentation and electronics.
In 1972 a Committee of Safety and Health at Work, chaired by Lord Robens, issued its report. Lord Robens, who had been Chairman of the National Coal Board from 1961-71, was fully conversant with the advantages to an industry of a comprehensive research effort on safety matters and of the advantages of sustained co-operation between management, work force, inspectors and research workers on safety topics.
The committee report made far-reaching recommendations on the organisation of Government involvement in industrial health and safety and many other related topics. In terms of the creation of a single body with responsibilities covering the whole of industry, the report had echoes of the Home Office Departmental Committee of 1920.
The Robens Committee Report was implemented in the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 19T4 (HSW Act), which came into force on 1 January 1975. The HSW Act set up the Health and Safety Commission (HSC), an independent body with a Chairman and with part time members nominated by the Confederation of British Industry, the Trades Union Congress and Local Authorities, as an overall policy making body, and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) as the operational arm of the Health and Safety Commission. These bodies were attached to the Department of Employment. The staff of HSE remained civil servants but HSE is a grant aided body rather than a Government Department.
The Mines and Quarries Inspectorate, the Factory Inspectorate, the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate, the Explosives Inspectorate, the Alkali and Clean Air Inspectorate and the Employment Medical Advisory Service were all incorporated into HSE from various Government Departments; later the Agricultural Inspectorate was added. The policy making units related to the work of those Inspectorates were also incorporated.
The Safety in Mines Research Establishment became part (the largest single part) of HSE's Research and Laboratory Services Division (RLSD). Other units brought into the Division were :
- The Occupational Hygiene Laboratory This laboratory was originally formed by the Factory Inspectorate in 1966 as the Industrial Hygiene Division. It was set up first at Baynards House in Bayswater, London, to work on systemic poisons, fibrogenic dusts and ionising radiations, and was moved to Cricklewood in North London in 1973.
- The Occupational Medicine Laboratory A pathological laboratory was set up in 1959 in St James' Square, London to assist the Factory Inspectorate with studies of workers exposed to benzene, lead or ionising radiation. In 1965 the work was transferred to the Medical Laboratory at Baynards House and in 1973 the Laboratory became part of the newly established Employment Medical Advisory Service. In 1975 the Laboratory moved to Cricklewood.
- BASEEFA The British Approvals Service for Electrical Equipment in Flammable Atmospheres (BASEEFA) was set up as part of the Ministry of Technology in 1967 to deal with the use of electrical equipment in industries other than mining where flammable atmospheres may be encountered. BASEEFA was based at Buxton to maintain close links with SMRE staff who carried out all BASEEFA's testing work.
The BASEEFA Advisory Council was set up in 1968 to advise the Minister of Technology on the operation of BASEEFA and on the necessary supporting services.
BASEEFA took over the certification of flameproof electrical apparatus for non-mining industries in January 1969 from the Ministry of Power and of intrinsically safe apparatus for non-mining industries in October 1969 from the Department of Employment and Productivity.
In addition, the decision was made that safety assessment of commercial explosives and other hazardous materials, carried out at the Ministry of Defence Royal Armament Research and Development Establishment at Woolwich on a contract basis for the Explosives Inspectorate, should be transferred to Buxton as soon as appropriate test facilities could be provided.
HSE's Statistical Services Unit, dealing with occupational health and safety statistics, was also brought into RLSD initially but was transferred to the Resources and Planning Division in 1978.
The incorporation of SMRE into the Health and Safety Executive produced the greatest changes in organisation and programmes of work since SMRB was set up in 1922.
In l977, the organisation of RISD was completely altered to reflect the different balance of work within the Division. BASEEFA remained unchanged but the other work was divided between three organisational units, with self explanatory names:
the Occupational Medicine and Hygiene Laboratory (OMHL);
the Safety Engineering Laboratory (SEL);
the Explosion and Flame Laboratory (EFL).
OMHL was located at Cricklewood and Sheffield; SEL was located mainly at Sheffield with some work at Buxton; EFL was located mainly at Buxton, with some work at Sheffield.
Under this reorganisation, each of the three laboratories covered both mining and non-mining topics and the name of the Safety in Mines Research Establishment disappeared from the organisation chart except in one important respect; the Research Director was also designated Head of SMRE.
However, the loss of SMRE as a separate physical entity did not represent a termination of its activities. It can be better regarded as an apotheosis - transcending mere lines on an organisation chart, the spirit of SMRE and the tradition of linking high quality scientific research to the cause of improving industrial health and safety remained to motivate the new organisation.
Concern had been expressed that the mining effort might suffer if the proposed Health and Safety at Work Bill was accepted. In May 1974 the Chairman of SMRAB expressed those fears to the Secretary of State for Energy, who replied that he would 'ensure as far as I am able that the research effort devoted to mining safety is fully adequate in relation to the hazards of the industry'. SMRAB remains in being as a watchdog on the adequacy of the mining safety and health research effort.
SMRB and SMRE had a long involvement with non-mining safety activities but, because the funding of each organisation was provided for mining safety purposes, this involvement was deliberately kept to a small proportion of the total effort. The work on intrinsic safety and flameproofness inevitably spread into non-mining applications in the 1930s and onwards and the long-standing collaboration with the Electrical Research Association on these topics proved very fruitful; the development of the pellistor for flammable gas detection inevitably involved consideration of its application to the whole range of flammable gases. Work on dust explosions in factories took place in the late 1950s in conjunction with the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research and the Fire Research Station; work on the flows at a break in a coolant duct of a nuclear reactor began in 1967 for the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate.
Following the formation of the Health and Safety Executive, the range of work covered by RLSD was greater than that covered by SMRE.
The expertise of the staff and the facilities at Cricklewood related to analysis of air samples and other factory samples for a wide range of potentially harmful organic and inorganic contaminants (solvent vapours, heavy metals, asbestos, carcinogens, etc), to the analysis of body fluids for contaminants and their metabolites and to problems of occupational noise, ventilation of the work place etc.
The transfer of work from RARDE to Buxton brought in new skills and interest in relation to the chemical and physical analysis of explosives, the stability of self reacting chemicals, the requirements for safe transport and storage of explosives and related materials and their behaviour if involved in accidental fires.
Many of the existing SMRE sections at Sheffield and Buxton simply widened their remits to include non-mining problems, Metallurgy Section, Fire Section. New sections were created at Sheffield to cover Machine Safety, Protective Equipment and Hazard Analysis.
One of the growth points in HSE's activities as a whole was on Major Hazards. The explosion at Flixborough in 1974, in which 28 people were killed on site, serious damage was done off site and a major chemical plant was completely destroyed, had focused public concern on a problem that was already receiving attention possible off site risks from major chemical plant.
The Health and Safety Commission set up an Advisory Committee on Major Hazards and many recommendations for research and for new regulations were included in the reports of this Advisory Committee.
In 1974, prior to the formation of HSE, SMRE had given considerable assistance to the Factory Inspectorate in their investigation of the Flixborough explosion; drawing on expertise obtained in the investigation of major mining accidents, SMRE carried out investigations on metallurgical, engineering, fire and explosion aspects of the accident, including a painstaking reconstruction of the probable failure mode of the plant.
From 1975 onwards there was a major research effort on Major Hazards, involving the Hazard Analysis section in statistical aspects and the use of predictive models of hazards, and other sections in providing basic data on fire, explosion and vapour dispersion problems. The Advisory Committee on Major Hazards identified a need for more research on the behaviour of dense clouds of gas or vapour accidentally released to the atmosphere: HSE placed a contract for a study of this problem with the Chemical Defence Establishment in 1976 and followed this with plans for a much more detailed study.
The second study was a major collaborative effort with financial and/or technical support from 38 other organisations. The total cost of the project was £1.7 million of which HSE contributed £0.2 million. The main contractor was the National Maritime Institute and the trials were carried out at Thorney Island, West Sussex .
Apart from financial support from HSE, RLSD supplied considerable technical support on project management, instrumentation and data analysis; mining work on the mixing of methane (lighter than air) with air was applied to good effect to the problem of mixing of dense vapours with air - the effect of density differences on the flow structure was the key to both problems.
Although SMRE's expertise on mining safety problems was rapidly extended to a wide range of non-mining problems, the traffic was by no means one way. Approaches used in the chemical industry, say, on reliability concepts and hazard analysis found applications to mining problems so that both areas benefited from the exchange of ideas.
All these changes produced changes in accommodation requirements. At Sheffield, expansion in staff numbers in 1975 necessitated leasing accommodation at Steel City House near the city centre. Initially four floors of the building were taken, but staff reductions from 1979 onwards, transfer of some functions to Buxton and developments at Broad Lane enabled some of this accommodation to be released.
An extension to the Engineering Laboratory was built at Broad Lane, between Stage 1 and Stage 2, to house a computer-controlled universal test bed for full-scale studies on engineering structures.
This extension was opened by Mr. W J Simpson, Chairman of the Health and Safety Commission, on 11 January 1982. Land adjacent to the Broad Lane buildings and the nearby Royal Exchange Works were purchased.
The Royal Exchange Works were converted to house the Central Services Unit which was previously at Cricklewood (providing equipment to HSE field inspectorates) and a new HSE computer. There are plans to use the land for a new building to rehouse the Cricklewood Laboratory. When these plans are implemented, the major part of RLSD staff will be concentrated on one site.
The Buxton site was extended in 1975 when two neighbouring farms were acquired; this took the land holding at Buxton up to 550 acres.
Two office/laboratory buildings, four test cells and additional magazine capacity were provided to house the sections transferred from RARDE. Ironically, one of the reasons for the original choice of the site created a problem here. Use of the land as a bomb and gun range during the First World War had left an amazing residue of shell and bomb cases in this corner of the site. The land had to be systematically cleared, a task which took an Army bomb disposal squad six months to achieve. During this time over 30,000 items were located and disposed of.
The Fire Section, previously housed in a wooden hut, was rehoused in purpose built accommodation suited to its expanded role but retaining access to the tunnel for large experimental fires. A crane test rig was built for measuring the wind loads on a crane during operation.
The Electrical Hazards Section and Intrinsic Safety Certification Section of EFL were transferred from Sheffield to Buxton in 1982 so that, for the first time, all the work on certification of electrical equipment for use in flammable atmospheres and the supporting research was on one site. Procedures and interpretations were progressively harmonised between BASEEFA, for non-mining certification, and the EFL sections concerned with mining certification to facilitate interchange of staff and transfer of jobs, if required.
The Noise and Vibration Section was transferred from Cricklewood to Buxton in October 1985, and a semi-anechoic chamber for the section's use was completed in April 1986.
The additional farm land was put to good use as a trials area for a wide variety of fire and explosion tests. Once more, a disused section of the Cromford and High Peak Railway was pressed into service, this time as an internal road to link the main site with the trials area over 26,400 metres away. A farmhouse was converted into a main control room and a satellite control room was constructed to control activities on about ten separate test facilities. These include fire engulfment facilities, in which tanks of LPG up to 5 tonnes in capacity have been exposed to fires, fragment traps in which LPG cylinders can be tested, with containment of the fragments if a burst should occur, facilities for testing the performance of very large flame traps, and areas for fire and explosion tests on detonators, explosives and hazardous materials in quantities up to several hundred kilograms. This well equipped trials area has safety distances of up to 400 metres. Each trial is assessed from the safety point of view and access to the trials area is regulated accordingly.
To return to the dust explosion theme, which provided much of the original impetus for safety in mines research, the newest explosion facility at Buxton is a 20 m3 explosion vessel adjoining the coal dust explosion galleries and sharing instrumentation and data recording facilities with them. The vessel is part of a programme on the venting of dust explosions sponsored by a consortium of 30 industrial concerns organised by the British Materials Handling Board. This arrangement has two messages:
- the value of the safety in mines research tradition and its ability to cope with changing circumstances and respond to new challenges;
- the value of involving external bodies in the research, not only to cope with escalating scale and costs but also to involve external expertise in planning and execution of the work and in the application of the results.
The Division therefore stands with a well-trained staff and a very wide range of up-to-date facilities, ready to cope with the challenges of the future in the field of industrial health and safety.
Much of the early work on mine safety was done in universities and contracts continued to be placed as the central organised effort developed. HSE is currently sponsoring work at over 20 universities and polytechnics and at about 45 other research organisations.
As the National Coal Board developed, its central Mining Research and Development Establishment (MRDE) near Burton on Trent also developed in size and expertise. There has been valuable co-operation between SMRE and MRDE over the years.
Some of the earliest organisations collaborating with SMRB were Nobel's Explosive Company, Sheffield University and the Electrical Research Association. These organisations are still involved today and they have been joined by many others too numerous to mention individually.
In applied research, success depends not only on the quality of the research itself but also on the correct identification of operational problems where research can be of value and on the application of research findings to those problems. The Mines Inspectorate has played a vital role in these processes over the years and, since the formation of the Health and Safety . Executive, HSE's other inspectorates are playing a similar role.
Safety in mines research has long been recognised as an area in which international co-operation is vital. The shared experience of major mining disasters and the cost and complexity of some of the research facilities make this inevitable. All major coal mining countries have developed research institutes in one form or another to study the problems of mining safety and information on problems and progress has willingly been shared.
The first recorded formal exchange of information was in September 1912 when an International Conference of Mine Experiment Stations was organised by the United States Bureau of Mines (USBM) in Pittsburgh. This Conference was attended by representatives from Austria, Hungary, Belgium, France, Germany and USA. Great Britain was not represented officially because the date clashed with the formal opening of the experimental gallery at Eskmeals but an unofficial delegate, who happened to be in Pittsburgh at the time, participated. The French delegate had to return to France just before the Conference opened because of a mine disaster. Dr Wheeler visited USBM in 1924 to set up a scheme of co-operation with the Bureau, with the objectives of reducing duplication of effort and promoting the exchange of ideas and information. The visit was returned later in the year when Dr Bain, the Director of the Bureau, visited the SMRB laboratories and exchanges of senior research scientists followed.
In 1931 what became known as the First International Conference of Safety in Mines Research Institutes was held at Buxton (the 1912 Pittsburgh meeting was not included in the series). Citing the value of the UK/USA liaison, Professor Wheeler invited colleagues in USA, Belgium and France to a meeting to discuss common problems. In addition to a tour of the laboratory and discussion on programmes, several technical presentations were given.
This liaison flourished and the conference eventually became a biennial one, held in one or other of the participating countries. It returned to Buxton in 1952, and was held at Sheffield in 1965 and 1983. As a sign of the changing nature of the international coal mining scene, the 2lst Conference was held in Sydney, Australia, in 1985 and the 22nd is planned for China.
Another important development came with the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951, which later became absorbed into the larger framework of the European Community. In the field of safety and health, the ECSC set out to harmonise standards in its member countries, promote information exchange and sponsor research. Although the UK did not become a member of the European Community until 1972, informal links with the ECSC existed before that. Since joining, the UK has played a full part in this work and SMRE actively participates in two major coal mining safety and health programmes of EC sponsored research on 'Safety in mining' and 'Hygiene in mines'.
There is also international co-operation in the area of training. For instance, in recent years, senior scientists and engineers of SMRE have visited China and India as part of programmes sponsored by the Overseas Development Administration. These visits have identified areas where a training or re-equipment programme would be beneficial and training programmes have been held in the UK.
The original purpose of the international liaison still exists but it has been joined by another - as countries develop coal mining industries from small beginnings there is a readymade forum in which their engineers can rapidly assimilate the latest thinking in safety techniques. In conclusion, one can hope that, thereby, the traumatic experiences of the first countries to undertake large-scale coal mining can be avoided and the cumulative knowledge of safety in mines used to assist a smooth development.
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