Voices in the Coalshed: Dust
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Voices in the Coalshed: Dust

Behind every mask there is a face, and behind that a story’. – Marty Rubin

 Wearing masks over our faces has become part of the new normal as we struggle with the Covid 19 pandemic but masking the face has previously had a bad reputation, often assumed to be an attempt to hide a person’s identity with criminal intent. But wearing masks is nothing new in mining and for good reason, that’s the story of the miner’s difficult relationship with dust.

Dust is tricky stuff. We’d all like some dust, for example gold dust or fairy dust, wouldn’t we? But the story of the face behind the mask tells how for miners, dust is both a deadly enemy and a friend. Coal dust is full of nasty poisonous stuff including chlorine, arsenic, phosphorus and lead!  Breathing in coal dust shortened miners active working lives but a respiratory disease called pneumoconiosis meant many miners struggled to breathe and this ultimately led to many premature deaths. As a result, miners wore masks to keep their dusty enemy at bay.

However, this is only half the story. No mask would ever protect the miner against the danger of gas and coal dust explosions. Have a look at this explosive video:

So, what saves miners lives? Well the strange answer is… dust! A different kind of dust used in a very scientific way. Dust that won’t burn, such as stone dust, will choke an explosion, robbing it of oxygen and preventing the explosion spreading.

How do you think the miners could use dust? Well sometimes it was spread along underground roadways so that if there was an explosion it would be blown into the air. Sometimes it was suspended in bags above the roadway that would burst open if there was an explosion – both would choke the flames, saving miner’s lives.

Voices in the Coalshed is a volunteer-led project that explores the language and literature inspired by coal mining.