One of the largest and most misunderstood issues in early mining was carbon monoxide poisoning. In mild doses, it can just lead to dizziness or headaches. In high doses, though, it can be fatal. It is tasteless and odorless, so miners often did not know they were exposed until it was too late.
To combat this, early miners would carry birds in cages with them. These small animals, usually canaries, would become sick or even pass away long before the miners knew they were exposed to the gas, alerting them to the presence of toxic fumes. They could then try to exit the mine before it became an issue.
But is this still a problem today? It certainly is. Even though we have far more advanced systems now and miners do not carry birds to signal for them, poisoning does happen. Two miners lost their lives to it in 2013. This is just one example.
While early-warning systems can help, experts do note that an incident of exposure can have long-term ramifications, even if it’s not fatal. Miners can become very sick, it may take them a long time to recover, and they could suffer damage and injuries that last for weeks, months or years. All cases are different and, as with anything where the brain does not get enough oxygen, there is the potential for brain damage.
Miners need to understand these risks. The industry is safer than it used to be, but it is by no means perfect. Accidents happen. Those who suffer injuries, or the families of those who pass away on the job, must know what legal options they have.