AMSJ » Take a Moment to Catch Your Breath | Breathing apparatus
MINING SAFETY HISTORY Personal Protective Equipment Respiratory Protection

Take a Moment to Catch Your Breath | Breathing apparatus

early breathing apparatus
Early breathing apparatus has developed to become essential equipment in any mine

Having quality and reliable breathing apparatus for a mining underground emergency environment should be the number one equipment priority for any mine operator. While we all need food, clothing and shelter may be the basic needs of humankind, but they pale in comparison to our most essential need of all; the need to breath, writes TR Mackay.

Clean air is vital to our survival and to our ability to perform physically at a high level. If you’ve ever been mountaineering in a place like Kilimanjaro, the Himalayas or the Andes in South America, you’ll be familiar with how the thin air at very high altitudes greatly affects movement. Walking becomes harder, lifting becomes harder, and even talking and thinking becomes harder as the neurons in the brain struggle to fire under reduced oxygen levels.

In an emergency situation in an underground mine, the ability of personnel to access clean oxygen is literally the difference between life and death. This is for obvious reasons – without clean oxygen to breath, the average human will experience some form of brain damage within 3 minutes, and die within 8.


However, just having some oxygen to breath is not enough. It has to be clean, plentiful and in constant supply or workers will experience the effects familiar to extreme altitude mountaineers – reduced physical and mental performance. In an underground emergency situation, impairment of any faculty is deadly.  Reduced physical ability will prevent workers from getting to safety quickly and reduced mental ability prevents workers from making life-saving decisions and from communicating important information to their colleagues effectively.

Having quality and reliable breathing apparatus in an underground mining environment must be the number one equipment priority for any mine operator. Breathing apparatus is, quite literally, the breath of life in emergency situations, with every other consideration coming a distant second.

During the 19th century and first half of the 20th century, numerous lives could have been saved in mining accidents if reliable breathing apparatus technology had been available.  While the principles behind operational breathing apparatus (or rebreathers) have been around since the 17th century,  it wasn’t until after World War One that the technology started to become widely available to underground miners.

The oldest known patent for a rebreather was filed in 1808 in France by an engineer in Napoleon’s Navy, Sieur Touboulic. Touboulic’s rebreather delivered oxygen to the wearer progressively, circulating in a closed circuit through a sponge soaked in limewater. The invention didn’t exactly take off, but the idea was there.

The next attempt to develop practical breathing apparatus technology came in the 1820s with engineers designing equipment to protect fireman from smoke inhalation. In some countries, firefighters were known as “smoke-eaters”. These smoke-eaters faced dreadful health issues from breathing in the hot, noxious smoke produced by an intense building fire. They experienced severe breathing difficulties as well as burn damage to the trachea and even the lungs themselves.

The first breathing apparatus prototype to enjoy any level of success was a fetching little number that consisted of a full head leather hood supplied with oxygen by a hose strapped to the fireman’s leg. This hose dropped to the man’s shoes and drew oxygen, not from a chamber, but from the marginally better air to be found near the floor of a smoke-filled room. As the wearer inhaled, air would be drawn up through the hose and fill the leather hood.

This equipment, while certainly not ideal, at least enabled the fireman to remain upright and active in a smoke-filled environment for longer than he would have been able to previously.

Building on this rudimentary technology, a full body suit was soon designed that was able to be filled with clean air sourced from outside a burning building. This suit enabled the wearer to function in a smoky environment for short periods of time – perhaps enough time to rescue a person trapped by the fire.

Another design that didn’t generate much traction at the time was a leather air-filled backpack similar to some products available on the market today.

As well as fireman, underwater divers were also experimenting with self-contained breathing apparatus around this time with varying levels of success.

It wasn’t until the mid 19th century that breathing apparatus for underground mine workers was first considered. In 1853, German Professor Theodore Schwann entered a self-contained breathing apparatus in a competition of the Belgian Academy of Science and exhibited it at an industrial fair in Belgium. Schwann’s apparatus had a large back-mounted oxygen tank with a working pressure of about 13.3 bar and two scrubbers containing sponges soaked in caustic soda.

This first attempt stoked the fires of the invention and in 1880, Henry Fleuss, a marine engineer, used self-contained breathing apparatus to explore Seaham Colliery in the UK in the aftermath of a gas explosion. Unfortunately, 164 lives were lost in the accident.

Fleuss’s invention stored oxygen and absorbed carbon dioxide through a rope soaked in a caustic potash solution. This was the first time (that we know of) that breathing apparatus was used, professionally, in an underground mine environment.

Fleuss, in partnership with dive equipment manufacturer, Siebe Gorban, then developed the Proto Breathing Apparatus in 1911 as well as a breath-controlled dispenser known as the automatic lung. It changed the survivability of an underground mine emergency.

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