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What it's Like to Work 7500 Feet Underground
"It's kind of like my childhood idea of what hell is like"

Thinking career change? Former Toronto resident Dave Tulloch left his urban abode and did a stint as a surveyor in Sudbury’s mines, the equivalent length of three CN Towers under the earth. We asked him what it was like.


Where did you work?

My first shift was at “Copper Cliff deep” which is the deepest part of Creighton Mine, about 7500 feet underground.

 

What was the procedure to prepare you for going that far under the earth? 

The H & S procedure involved an eight-hour classroom-style training session, plus an eight-hour practical test in an “adit” which is like a baby mine; a drift cut into a steep embankment that doesn’t usually have a shaft/cage. They pack you into the “cage” shoulder to shoulder, which drops slowly at first but reaches a top speed of 50km/h. The cage is “open air” so you can actually see the rock face of the shaft passing by at high speeds and you could even reach out and touch it if the cage tender allowed that sort of behavior. The cage tender is like an elevator butler, he always stays on and opens the door to let you on and off, responding to calls from various levels, but instead of pushing a button, you ring a bell, three bells means pick me up, two bells means something else, I haven’t quite figured it out. Sometime there is no cage tender and the cage just appears because it is being operated from the surface.


Did you feel scared at all when you’re down there? Do your ears pop?

The first cage ride can be intimidating to some people. Rumour has it that some people can’t take the pressure changes and go into a fit of madness on the way down, pleading with the cage tender to return them to the surface, which he obviously will do to spare them. I enjoyed the thrill of being in the mine – and I wasn’t really scared – more just excited. The sensation is similar to taking a plane ride in that your ears pop.


Are you claustrophobic?

Once you are off the cage and at your level, claustrophobia can set in as there is really no way out other than back in the cage which is now gone. Miners often have to wait several hours for a cage ride because they are often being serviced, or the shaft is being used to haul ore out of the mine. In the event of an emergency, there are panic rooms called ‘Refuge Stations’ which are like caverns that can be sealed off air-tight using a special puddy, and are directly linked to a source of clean oxygen/air supply from the surface. They also double as lunchrooms. Underground fires are an ongoing concern. In the event of a fire, a miner may need to spend several days underground.


What was it like?

The first thing you notice off the cage is the intense temperature change. That far below the surface, the geothermal heat brings the temperature up over 30 degree Celsius – even on cold winter days. Also noticeable is the sheer darkness. Even though at the shaft there is lights and activity, not far away you could find yourself in complete darkness and silence. It’s kind of like my childhood idea of what hell is like. The miner’s lamp is a vital tool. The actual production face could be a 45 minute drive from the shaft, so we pile into a side-by-side ATV and start driving across the spider web or rock tunnels and underground highways, careful not to interfere with the large dump-truck stype ore hauler trucks called Karuna trucks. There is an ever-present film of rock dust covering everything from equipment to tables to refrigerators. There is no cleaning service underground. Not to mention the stench of diesel fumes is always there.

Long, drawn out, almost eerie silences are broken with loud rumblings and popping noises called  “seismic events”, easily the most terrifying experience for a new miner. Given the immense pressures that far below the surface, the rock is constantly moving and adjusting at is it being manipulated by mining activity. There is always the real and present possibility of a “rock burt” which is basically a rock failure and implosion. After almost daily exposure to these noises and rumblings, the fear for life will basically go away.


Do you feel that working underneath the earth changes people’s behaviour somewhat?

The behaviour of the typical miner is hard to describe. On my first cage ride the “shift boss” was holding the door for everyone as they walked on. He said; “hurry up fuckers, let’s go.” We all knew his verbal abuse was spoken facetiously and was meant to inspire an element of camaraderie. I think working underground in dangerous, isolated places in such poor working conditions makes people tough-skinned. But at the same time, there is a sense of belonging. Everyone there is putting in a hard days work to support their family.

At the end of the day, they can take pride in the fact that they work under conditions that most people couldn’t tolerate. The shift boss put it like this, in a Northern Ontario French accent, as an ore hauler drove by, and the diesel fumes filled the air: “Do you smell that?!… That’s the smell of money… bling bling, ching ching!” 

____

Tiffy Thompson is a writer and illustrator for the Toronto Standard.  Follow her on Twitter at @tiffyjthompson. 

For more, follow us on Twitter at @TorontoStandard and subscribe to our newsletter.

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