What does a refuge chamber contain, and why are they required?
A refuge chamber is a sealed environment, built to sustain life during an emergency or hazardous situation. They provide a secure area with shelter, water, and breathable air, where personnel can remain until rescued or the hazard subsides.
More specifically, the refuge chamber is a closed circuit breathing apparatus within a sealed container; where carbon dioxide and other toxins are removed, oxygen is added, and temperature and humidity are maintained, all while protecting occupants from the external threat.
Refuge chambers can go by other names, such as refuge station or refuge bay. Terminology primarily depends on industry or region, for example, it is referred to as a safe haven in the petrochemical industry or refuge alternative in the coal industry. However, the overarching purpose of these shelters remains the same.
What is a Refuge Chamber?
What Equipment Makes up a Refuge Station?
There are several vital components which make up what a refuge chamber is. Without these, in an emergency the shelter may not meet its life-saving requirements.
Multiple Sources of Breathable Air
Breathable air merely is air that can support life, has enough oxygen in its mix, and doesn’t contain contaminants like carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, water, or any other toxins that will poison refuge chamber occupants during entrapment.
Multiple sources of breathable air within their refuge chambers need to be supplied to accommodate a range of situations.
A Habitable Environment
Occupants can remain in a refuge chamber for an unknown amount of time. During their entrapment it is essential that the environment does not hinder their chance of surviving the emergency. Adequate space is neccessary for the life-supporting mechanism to operate; alongwith water and nutrients.
Cooling is one of the most critical features of a refuge. Heat can quickly accumulate inside a refuge chamber, increasing with each additional person. This is a problem often underestimated; with cooling systems perceived more as a luxury than an essential part of life-sustaining safe refuge technology.
Backup Power Supply
Every refuge chamber requires an emergency power source to maintain the life-sustaining equipment if mains power fails. This scenario is often referred to as standalone mode.
The duration of these systems for hard rock mining has been set by various industry guidelines at 36 hours based on recovery periods after a truck fire, and this is extended to 96 hours for coal mining. Safe havens for petrochemical sites may only require a few hours duration based on the type of facility.
Related Article What is the Ideal Safe Refuge Chamber Duration? “Safe haven or refuge chamber duration should be determined on a risk-based approach. Every mine, construction site, plant, or facility is different and should be assessed based on its unique conditions, and the overall emergency response plan.” Read More
Why is a Refuge Chamber Needed?
The purpose of a refuge station is to keep people safe. In industries such as mining, underground construction, and chemical manufacturing there is a higher potential for the atmosphere to become contaminated and unsafe.
The main purpose of a refuge chamber is to provide a:
- Safe refuge if the external environment becomes hazardous, providing a controlled atmospheric environment to sustain life. By protecting the user from an outer irrespirable atmosphere containing contaminants that would be an immediate threat to or not sustainable to support life.
- Muster Point during any emergency. Personnel can be easily located and accounted for as the refuge chamber maintains a fresh source of air, communications, and other resources critical to survival.
- Point of retrieval of personnel by emergency services.
Fires, explosions, rock-falls, flooding and the release of toxic gases are just some of the types of incidents that occur all too often, despite planning and safety precautions.
In these incidents, it is essential to provide a safe location for staff to escape to, when exiting the area is no longer an option.
Why? Although personnel may survive an immediate accident, the air can often become soiled with pollutants, smokes, and toxins deeming it unbreathable. Smoke may be too thick for those underground to see, or the path may be blocked, there are a number of reasons these shelters are used. Refuge chambers will help sustain the life of personnel in an area while they wait to be rescued; providing a breathable supply of air, water and communications to the surface – ultimately saving lives.
How does a Refuge Chamber fit into a Safety and Emergency Response Plan?
Emergency refuge forms an integral part of a site’s broader Emergency Response Plan (ERP).
In emergencies, when evacuation is no longer safe or practical, the emergency refuge is designed to provide a safe and secure ‘go-to’ area for personnel to gather and await extraction.
Refuge chambers differ from a Fresh Air Base (FAB), although they are two types of shelters used in underground mines, particularly during emergencies. These shelters can appear similar, and often mistakenly the terms are interchanged, yet they are vastly different.
Government regulations across many parts of the world have incorporated refuge chambers as a critical component of site planning. However, chamber installation is just the beginning. Beyond chamber placement, training is a critical aspect of a site’s ERP. If employees understand and are familiar with when, and how to accurately use a chamber, the chances of survival are significantly improved.
Every site is different – whether it is an underground mine, petrochemical facility or transport tunnel; and this affects the style of refuge chamber required. MineARC Systems specialise in designing and custom building refuge chambers for the safe retreat of personnel.
Safety drives productivity; it involves a collective effort but must be led by management. A management-led program to enhance workplace OH&S instils a positive and well-respected safety culture within the organisation.