Draegermen are miners with special training and equipment for mine rescue work. They are heroes who walk toward danger when most of us would just want to get away from it.

“Draegermen” is a term used internationally, but it was likely coined in Nova Scotia, according to the Museum of Industry in Stellarton. It refers to the Dräger breathing apparatus, invented by German scientist Alexander B. Dräger, which was a combined gas mask and oxygen inhalator that allowed draegermen to work in smoke- and gas-filled mines after accidents.

Draegermen crews were established in Nova Scotia in the early 1900s in response to coal mine disasters. This was a milestone in the building of a safety culture that has become a hallmark of the mining and quarrying industry today. Nova Scotia’s industry has reduced its injury rate by 90% since the Westray inquiry report was released in 1997. We believe the most important thing to come out of a mine is the miner, and our modern safety record reflects this.

In 1906-07, the Dominion Coal Company set up a rescue station at its No. 2 mine in Glace Bay with 20 sets of Dräger breathing apparatuses and other rescue and medical equipment. It was the first such facility in North America and its success led to similar rescue crews and facilities being established at other Nova Scotian mines.

There were strict criteria for becoming a draegerman. They generally had to be aged 25-40, certified as First Class miners and physically fit. They also needed to have the right temperament for the dangerous work: cool-headed and a team player.

The Nova Scotia Department of Mines’ 1912 annual report includes a letter from the Dominion Coal Company that discussed its draegermen crews and rescue stations.

According to Dominion’s letter, the company built a “smoke-chamber” for training that “has no windows, and has a fire grate in one corner on which materials are burnt to make a stifling smoke. There are two weight lifting machines for exercising, consisting of a rope passing over a pulley attached to a weight of 45 pounds. Men training in the use of the breathing apparatus enter the smoke wearing the apparatus and carrying electric lamps. Each man does a certain amount of work on the exercises, and he thereby becomes acquainted with the working of the apparatus and its effect upon him individually. The instructor is able to gauge the effectiveness of a man, as shown by his behaviour under the physical strain, and is also able to judge the suitability of each man for the work. This training and testing process is quite necessary, as not all men are fitted to wear the apparatus or to perform the exhausting work which in case of emergency they will be called upon to do.”

Dominion’s letter also described the Dräger breathing apparatus: “The oxygen is contained in the twin cylinders at a pressure of 225 atmospheres. When released by turning the valve, it passes out through a reducing valve at a pressure of 125 atmospheres through a side tube and into the air-space of the helmet, emerging immediately in front of the mouth of the wearer. The helmet connects with two bags lying on the chest, one for the oxygenized air supply and the other for the expired air. These bags serve merely as a reservoir and to equalize the circulation. The expired air passes through a tube on the opposite side of the helmet and is passed through the regenerator cartridges. These consist of tin cylinders containing layers of finely graduated potash on shelves so arranged as to present the greatest possible superficial area of absorbing surface. The potash takes up the carbon dioxide of the expired breath, and the purified air passes through a cooler, finally joining the main oxygen stream issuing from the cylinder. The process is continuous, and the apparatus is designed to enable the wearer to work for two hours quite independently of the nature of the outside atmosphere.”

The letter also said, “The most characteristic part of the Draeger apparatus is the helmet, which is a brass mask covering the entire face and the crown of the head, but leaving the ears free. Inside it has a collapsible rubber lining, which may be inflated and deflated, in the same manner as the tire of a bicycle. By inflating the pneumatic lining the helmet can be made to fit exactly into all the hollows and curves of the facial outline, and entirely exclude the outside atmosphere. The front of the helmet consists of a large circular pane of mica, which affords unobstructed vision. The entire apparatus fully charged weighs about 38 pounds.”

Dominion also had its own “private telephone system” that helped facilitate emergency response. It connected Dominion’s main rescue station “by telephone, on its own special circuit, with all the collieries, and by means of an extension instrument is connected with the instructor's residence, close by the station.”

The success of Dominion’s draegermen crew led to the Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company and the Acadia Coal Company establishing similar teams.

The Nova Scotia Steel and Coal Company did something the other two companies did not – it put its rescue station on wheels in a refurbished Pullman train car so it could quickly travel to different mines when disaster struck. It was, according to a letter from the company in the 1912 annual report, “the usual size railway passenger-car and divided into three sections.” The first section was accommodations for the rescue crew, including a stove “to enable the crew to live on board the car for short periods of time.” The second contained the rescue and medical equipment, including Dräger breathing apparatuses, oxygen cylinders and oxygen pumps, a Pulmotor (respiratory apparatus for pumping oxygen or air into and out of the lungs) and safety lamps. It also held blueprints for all of the company’s coal mines and canaries for testing air quality in mines. The third section of the railcar contained firefighting equipment like hoses, ladders and axes.

The Dräger company is still a going concern. It was founded in 1889 to sell equipment and innovations, such as beer tap systems that used compressed carbon dioxide. While it had been possible since the second half of the 1800s to fill steel cylinders with high-pressure gas, removing the gas in a controlled and safe manner at low pressure was a problem. The company’s work on improving beer tap systems eventually led to its innovations with breathing apparatuses.

Dräger equipment is still used in Nova Scotia. The province currently has two operating underground mines: the Donkin coal mine and the Pugwash salt mine. The rescue teams at both use breathing apparatuses made by Dräger.

The No. 2's draegermen, the first draeger crew in North America. Thanks to the Beaton Institute for the photo.