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Fire Warnings And Information Uncertainty; Behavioral And Organizational Dimensions Of Underground Mine Fires
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  • Description:
    The first steps in the process of mine evacuation are the recognition of a problem and an attempt to communicate the problem to miners who may be affected. This chapter will focus on the way that a problem, fire, came to the attention of mine personnel and the messages that were sent to miners in the affected areas. The concept of information uncertainty, which was introduced in chapter 4, will be discussed as it influences problem perception and diagnosis. Sociotechnical and interpersonal communications will be explored and suggestions for improving these systems will be offered. It might seem that the first indication of a dangerous fire would motivate individuals to take self-protective action, to evacuate the affected area or structure, and to provide clear warning to others who are in danger. Research has actually shown that in most situations this does not occur. Instead, time is taken to gather more information, confirm information that is provided, and consider possible alternative explanations that could account for the given circumstances [Canter 1990; Scanlon 1979; Bickman et al. 1977]. This process of confirmation can lead to the loss of critical time. Canter [1990] summarizes the problem in his book, which reports studies of a number of fire events: "As discussed throughout this book, ambiguity and confusion, incoherent instructions and time-wasting actions, lack of appropriate instructions and misunderstanding of the nature of the event that is unfolding, are all hallmarks of fires and emergencies that kill people." In this chapter, the detection of each mine fire and the communication of warning to endangered miners will be reviewed with an emphasis on how those processes were affected by the availability and use of information. Information can become available through a variety of mechanisms during an emergency situation. First, cues may be taken directly from the environment. Smoke is an obvious example. Secondly, mechanical devices, such as smoke detectors, may provide warning messages. A third source of information is interpersonal communications. These can occur face-to-face or through some mechanical device such as a telephone. With all three methods there is a possibility of miscommunication, misunderstanding, and misinterpretation. All of these means of communication were used with varying degrees of success in the three mine fires analyzed here. A fire, like any nonroutine situation, engenders uncertainty about a diagnosis and understanding of the problem [Mead 1938]. This uncertainty leads to delays in realization of the seriousness of the situation and therefore in the proper response to it. Delay in action is an important concern in any fire setting, but is even more at issue in underground coal mine fires. Mine fires are qualitatively different from structural blazes: workers' escapeways may be miles long; the seam height at many operations is so low that it is impossible to walk upright; access to underground workings is always limited to a few (sometimes only two)

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