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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

28 June - Canary in a Coal Mine

It's never ceased to amaze me, how over the years, the Fire Alarm always goes off when the weather is cold, or rainy or both. I work at the moment in a fabulous new buildiing with air conditioning which, like all air conditioning, doesn't work properly, being cold in patches and hot in summer. I think that's part of the problem. When its cold, and the toast burns in the kitchen, the windows are kept shut and off goes the smoke alarm. This is followed by staff picking up umbrellas, coats and handbags as we stand in the designated area which acts as a wind tunnel and freeze.

The best incident though was over 10 years ago. I worked in a chemical firm in Swadlincote, Derbyshire. People from Swad aren't the brightest stars in the sky, but they are the hardest working people I know, and really are the honourable working class. They say about people from Swad that they are 'Derbyshire born, and Derbyshire Bred, Strong in the arm, and soft in the head'. This particular company employed mostly women - before the Minimum wage, it was an ideal job, paid for Christmas, and holidays where the man was the bread winner, working in Pits and Pots. (Town motto: 'The earth our wealth'.) The men for equally low skilled jobs earned twice as much, but it could never be proved that any law was broken, and no ship needed to be rocked. They were proud of the fruits of their labour, even so and accepted their role in life. People in offices just didn't work as hard in their eyes. (Care workers in Councils suffer from the same problem. Looking after a human being is minimum wage (usually done by women, and yet people who empty bins (usually men) earn at least twice as much. Care of a human being is worth less, just as women need less money to get by on.

After a period of heavy rain, a hole appeared in the park next door to the factory. It was over 8 feet wide and 16 feet deep. It was fenced off while a variety of men from the Council, Health and Safety and the Coal Board stared down it. Eventually, a couple of weeks later, after much head scratching, they decided to fill the hole.

I don't know what people know about mines, but one of the major dangers is coal gas. Canaries were sent down. If they fell off their perch to the cage floor, there was gas. If they carried on singing there wasn't. This was replaced by the Davy Lamp. Except, I learnt recently, that in Durham, where the replacement lamp was designed by George Stephenson and only used in the Durham coalfields- hence the term Geordie to describe the people up there.

A couple of weeks later, one of the women in the factory smelt gas. We evacuated, but couldn't find the source. The Firemen from the Station round the corner put in an appearance as well, (much to the delight of the women, who only saw them when they were selling their bedding plants, in May, and had a firemen's calender on the wall in their workplace). We also knew when it was close to home time, as the Fire Station alarm went to put out chip pan fire in Newhall.

A couple of days later there was a huge explosion in the yard and a 8 inch thick man hole cover was launched 20 feet in the air to land on top of the safety cage on a fork lift truck narrowly missing the driver. If he had done as he'd been told and been on the outdoor one as he should have been, he would have been killed, but no one worried about his misdemeanour, in this case, pleased that he was OK, a bit shook up and in need of a clean pair of underpants.

The whole building was evacuated to find the gas leak. Of course, even though the flammable chemicals were kept in a bund outside, that was to blame, according to the officials. Only no one could find how the flammables could get to a warm enough temperature in November, that would get the liquids to become gaseous enough to become explosive.

While the firemen, police, British Gas and the factory manager tried to sort the problem out with a variety of test equipment, we stood outside, for over two hours, without coats, in November. We couldn't go home as keys etc. were inside. (You don't pick up personal belongings to leave when there's an explosion). Women don't do cold, and so what seemed exciting, very soon became miserable.

The cause of the explosion was never found, but I really do believe that capping that old collpased mine shaft in the park meant that the gas had to go somewhere, had gathered in the drain until it had reached a critical level, and then escaped through the only available route - the drain cover.

Canary in a Coal min was an obscure Police Album track, I think from the 'Message in a Bottle' album.

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