Canary in a coal mine

Trent Ernst, Editor


A common symbol of worker’s safety is a canary in a cage.

Which, on the surface, seems like a terrible image, something so cheery to celebrate something so sad.

But there is a reason for it.

Back before there were devices that could detect carbon monoxide and other dangerous gases, miners used to carry canaries with them into the mines, especially following fires or explosions.

The idea was canaries, because they were so small, would react quicker to the presence of poisonous gases than humans.

If the canary started to show signs of distress or died, it was a signal that conditions were unsafe, and miners would beat a hasty retreat back to the surface.

The practice was so common that we still use the phrase “canary in a coal mine” to refer to leading indicators of an oncoming disaster.

The practice was first proposed by John Haldane, a Scottish physiologist who was famous for doing research on himself, locking himself in rooms full of dangerous gases, then writing about the experience of being poisoned.

Haldane was concerned about the effects of these often odourless, colourless gases, and investigated many mining disasters. While he is also credited with using safety lamps to detect poisonous gases by the influence on the flame, in the late 1890s, he proposed carrying canaries or mice in cages to detect the presence of carbon monoxide, a practice which continued in Britain until 1986.

Canaries, are perfect, not just because they’re small and portable, but because their anatomy makes them vulnerable to airborne poisons. Canaries have a fast metabolism and increased respiration rate, which helps them fly. They also have a different physiology than humans which increases the rate of absorption of oxygen, but also of other gases.

Later on, he went on to invent the first gas mask, which were used in World War I.

Metaphorically, the canary in the coal mine is the first to go, the first victim of a disaster, the first indicator that something is wrong. Many times, when workers are injured or die on a mine site, it is an early indicator that something is wrong at the site.

But the canary also saved many lives. By paying attention to the changes in the canary’s condition, many miners came home safe that may not have.

In 2013, there were a total of 103,672 work related incidents in BC

Workplace injury and illness resulted in 2,761,604 lost days of work.

128 people died due to work-related injury

67 of those deaths were occupational diseases, many of which were due to exposure to asbestos.

Six young workers (aged 24 and under) died from workplace injuries.

Mining remains one of the most dangerous occupations, with 15 deaths reported in the industry, as compared to 5 in the oil and gas industry and eight in forestry. Only construction is more fatal, with 28 people dying in the last year.