Author(s): Angelo Verzoni. Published on November 29, 2021.

Mine Blast

After dozens die in a coal mine accident in Russia, an expert discusses the importance of taking fire and life safety protection measures in these dangerous environments


On November 25, a methane leak and explosion in a coal mine in Russia caused the deaths of more than 50 people and left hundreds injured. It was the country’s worst mining disaster in a decade.

According to the New York Times, the incident occurred after a ventilation shaft in the mine filled with gas while nearly 300 workers were underground. At least six first responders were among the fatalities. 

A spokesperson for the mine has told Russian state news agencies that the mine’s methane detector never registered an unsafe amount of the gas, the Times reported, but an April 2021 investigation of the mine uncovered faulty methane sensors, among hundreds of other violations—and those who worked in the mine had reportedly felt unsafe long before disaster struck in November. “My husband came home from work every day and said it wouldn’t end well,” the wife of one of the deceased workers said in a video widely circulated on Russian media, according to the Times. 

NFPA 120, Standard for Fire Prevention and Control in Coal Mines, and NFPA 122, Standard for Fire Prevention and Control in Metal/Nonmental Mining and Metal Mineral Processing Facilities, outline requirements for preventing incidents like the one in Russia. NFPA Journal recently spoke with Matthew Barker, an engineer at NFPA and the NFPA staff liaison to NFPA 120 and NFPA 122, to discuss mine safety and the two standards, which are currently undergoing revision and open to public comment. 

What are some of the biggest fire hazards in coal mines?

The materials involved in coal mining can be a fire hazard. Two of the primary hazards are coal dust and methane gas. Both of these, under the right conditions and exposed to an ignition or heat source, can lead to a fire or explosion. Compounding these fire hazards is the physical layout of mines, which include confined spaces spread out over long distances and ventilation systems that can spread toxic gases and smoke during a fire. All of this creates an environment that can be extremely difficult to evacuate and also difficult for first responders to access. 

RELATED: Read about how combustible dust explosions occur

What are some of the ways NFPA 120 and NFPA 122 strive to prevent fires in coal mines?

Preventing the ignition of flammable vapors or combustible materials is a key part of these documents, but they also outline measures for detection and suppression of fires. 

Certain sections in NFPA 120 work to ensure the equipment and staff inside mines don’t introduce risk, as well. For example, the standard provides requirements for the operation, inspection, maintenance, and testing of equipment used in underground mining operations, and there are training requirements for all employees in fire prevention, firefighting, and emergency evacuation procedures 

Both of those standards are currently in cycle, with 2023 editions set to come out next year. Are there any notable changes on the horizon? 

A new section of NFPA 120’s chapter on underground mining operations has been proposed to require that all mines establish a ventilation safety plan, ensuring there is a proper gas monitoring system operating in areas where workers are present. If approved, the new section will provide significant safety improvements to underground mining operations. 

How many countries currently use NFPA 120 and NFPA 122, and do you think there’s a need to raise awareness of these standards?

NFPA 120 and NFPA 122 are currently used in the United States, Canada, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Increased awareness of these standards and, more importantly, acceptance of these standards by new jurisdictions would undoubtedly increase our ability to prevent future tragic incidents in underground mining operations. The Mining Facilities technical committee, which write and revise both standards, is constantly working on outreach to increase international representation on the committee and also working to incorporate more international documents into the standards. Anyone interested in learning more about the documents can visit and

ANGELO VERZONI is associate editor for NFPA Journal. Top photograph: GETTY IMAGES