While it is important that all mine workers prepare for emergencies, having well prepared mine rescue teams is also critical. During an emergency, mine rescue teams may have to navigate through complex, changing and otherwise challenging environments. To prepare for this reality, mine rescue teams must undergo extensive federally mandated training.

A mine rescue team in the NIOSH Virtual Immersion and Simulation Laboratory in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Although the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) sets minimum standards for training frequency, many mining companies exceed these requirements by developing additional internal policies and/or setting higher standards for training. As a result, mine rescue team members can possess a wide range of mine emergency response knowledge, skills and abilities (KSAs).

In addition to teams having the KSAs needed to perform their duties, research across various types of emergency response teams (e.g., firefighters and hospital trauma units) suggests that several team-related factors (e.g., decisiveness, cooperation and trust) also influence team performance in real-world emergency situations (Marks, Mathieu, & Zaccaro, 2001; Schaafstal, Johnston, & Oser, 2001). Because of the connection to these factors, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) explored this issue with mine rescue teams and identified several factors that might influence mine rescue team performance.

What Did We Do?

Ten mine rescue teams with a wide range of training backgrounds and emergency response experiences volunteered to visit the NIOSH Virtual Immersion and Simulation Laboratory (VISLab) to participate in ongoing mine rescue training research. Each team participated in sessions in which they responded to simulated mine emergencies in a virtual reality environment and the mine rescue scenarios were similar to those created for mine rescue contests. After orientation and practice with the virtual immersion and simulation technology, team members were given a briefing on a fictional mine rescue problem and instructed to approach it as they would in “real life.” A 30-minute after-action debriefing followed the completion of the exercise.

Team members were asked to complete written questionnaires both before and after completing the exercise. To learn about issues that could impact team performance, each team member was asked several questions about the factors listed below. A few example questions follow each factor listed below.

Team Familiarity: How familiar team members are with each other and how well they understand the responsibilities of other team members’ roles. This factor was of particular interest because team familiarity has been linked to team performance outcomes in previous emergency team-based research (Huckman & Staats, 2011). The answers to all three of the following questions were measured on a five-point scale ranging from “not at all” to “frequently or always” prior to participation in the exercise. The average of the team members’ responses was used to determine level of “team familiarity.”

“On average, how often do your team’s members…

  • See each other at work?
  • See each other outside of work or training?
  • Spend at least part of your training time cross-training in each other’s team roles?”

Team Training Climate: How mine rescue team members view the support they receive from their organizations for training activities. The more that team member collectively agreed with these statements, the more supportive their team training climate was believed to (Bauerle & Mallett, 2013). This factor was also measured prior to participation in the exercise using five-point scale ranging from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” Again, the average of each team member’s responses was used to determine each team’s reported level of supportiveness of “team training climate.”

“Our mine rescue team training provides opportunities for…

  • Constructive feedback from instructors.
  • Practice with equipment used in a real emergency.
  • Training that is usually realistic and “hands-on.”

Team Confidence in Team Dynamics (Teamwork): How team members perceive team dynamics and their confidence in their ability to perform as an effective team. This factor has been significantly associated with training performance in emergency response (Collins & Parker, 2010; Waller, Lei, & Pratten, 2014). An 11-point scale was used for all of these questions and each team member was asked to report his or her level of confidence (ranging from 0% Confident to 100% Confident) in their team’s ability to respond to a real emergency. This set of questions was asked again following the exercise to determine whether participating in this team activity had any effect on team confidence.

“How confident are you that your team could, if required, do the following right now in a real mine emergency?

  • Make quick and effective decisions.
  • Agree on solutions to difficult problems encountered.
  • Readapt team strategy in response to unexpected changes in the environment.
  • Assist with each other’s responsibilities.
  • Maintain clear and efficient communication.
  • Monitor each other’s work for mistakes and give feedback.

Using information from the questionnaires and from observations taken during the simulation exercises, researchers were able to identify factors that could be important for mine operators and mine rescue team trainers to keep in mind as they equip teams to respond to real-world emergencies.

What Did We Learn?

Answering one of our key research questions about training, we found that emergency training in immersive, virtual training environments leads to increased confidence among mine rescue teams (Hoebbel, Bauerle, MacDonald, & Mallett, 2015). These results also begged the question, “aside from formal opportunities for team training in simulated environments (e.g., virtual, field contests or MERDS, etc.), what other factors can influence mine rescue team performance?”

Based on research, the authors suggest that the following relationships exist between other factors that influence mine rescue team performance:

Team Familiarity and Confidence: Mine rescue teams whose members interact often — whether at work, outside of work, and/or participate in mine rescue cross-training — had higher levels of confidence in their ability to respond and perform effectively as a team. They also showed more gain in confidence after the NIOSH activity than did those teams with less familiarity with one another.

Team Training Climate and Confidence: Teams who perceive a supportive training climate — where members feel they get constructive feedback from trainers and realistic “hands-on” training — have more confidence in their ability to respond and perform effectively as a team in an emergency.

Moreover, teams who reported both high familiarity with team members and supportive training environments had significantly more confidence in their abilities, both before and after, than those who reported they were less familiar with their teammates and/or felt less supported in team training activities.

Also of interest is that teams who felt their formal mine rescue team training may be lacking in some respects, but who reported a high level of familiarity with one another, showed the greatest gains in confidence after participating in the NIOSH virtual exercise. In other words, while such teams did not start out as confident as others, they did show the greatest increases in confidence scores, which suggests they might be able to overcome other limiting factors (e.g., lack of resources) more quickly and dramatically than teams whose members are less familiar with one another.

The results of this study offer important considerations for preparing rescue teams to respond successfully to a mine emergency. Teams who feel less supported in their training experiences and/or teams who are less familiar with one another may lack the confidence to respond to a real mine emergency. Additionally, confidence has been shown to be strongly related to performance in emergency response teams outside of mining. Due to variations in team composition and resource availability, there are wide differences across teams for opportunities to practice together in coordinated efforts through mine rescue contests, MERDS and other formal activities. However, it is encouraging to learn that all teams, regardless of composition, may benefit from time spent together outside of more formal training activities.

Although this research has shown the benefits of training in immersive virtual reality environments, specifically, it is not always possible or practical for teams to participate in such activities. It is important to recognize that fostering teamwork in a mine rescue team may not require an approach exclusive to immersive training environments. Mine operators, team trainers, and mine rescue teams themselves might also benefit from creative alternatives by encouraging and facilitating a variety of team-based activities.

For more information about ongoing NIOSH mine emergency training modules, join the NIOSH Mine Emergency Response webinar on Thursday, September 8 from noon-1 p.m. EST. Register by emailing Nicole Ortiz at lof9@cdc.gov.


Bauerle, T. J., & Mallett, L. G. (2013, May). “Safety Climate Applied to Crisis Scenarios: Development of a Measure of Mine Emergency Preparedness Climate.” Presentation at the biennial Work, Stress and Health Conference, Los Angeles, California.

Collins, C. G., & Parker, S. K. (2010). “Team Capability Beliefs Over Time: Distinguishing Between Team Potency, Team Outcome Efficacy, and Team Process Efficacy.” Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology, 83 (4), 1003-1023.

Hoebbel, C., Bauerle, T. J., MacDonald, B., & Mallett, L.G. (2015). “Assessing the Effects of Virtual Emergency Training on Mine Rescue Team Dynamics.” In: Editor, ed. Proceedings of the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation, and Education Conference (I/ITSEC), Orlando, Florida, Paper No. 15119.

Huckman, R. S., & Staats, B. R. (2011). “Fluid Tasks and Fluid Teams: The Impact of Diversity in Experience and Team Familiarity on Team Performance.” Manufacturing & Service Operations Management, 13(3), 310-328.

Marks, M. A., Mathieu, J. E., & Zaccaro, S. J. (2001). “A Temporally Based Framework and Taxonomy of Team Processes.” Academy of Management Review, 26, 356-376.

Schaafstal, A. M., Johnston, J. H., & Oser, R.L. (2001). “Training teams for Emergency Management.” Computers in Human Behavior, 17, 615-626.

Waller, M., Lei, Z., & Pratten, R. (2014). “Focusing on Teams in Crisis Management Education: An Integration and Simulation-based Approach.” Academy of Management Learning & Education, 13, 208-221.