Queensland Government – mining safety in crisis

July 7, 2019 JOHN NINNESS

OPINION There are some valuable lessons for an industry when six fatal accidents occur within a relatively short time frame. Those lessons should resonate throughout the industry, not only extending to mine operators, miners and unions but also to the Queensland Government who oversees mining safety in the state. Queensland mining safety has reached a crisis point.

‘Another life lost, another family decimated by the grief of losing a loved one.’

Looking back over my years in safety, I’ve never met a CEO, a Supervisor or even a worker who wants to see the loss of life at work. I’ve never ever met a Government Inspector or Union Official who takes delight in investigating a fatal accident.

Come to think of it…I’ve never met a Politician that delights in the bad news either. 

Unfortunately, the politics of mining safety is often played out at multiple levels within corporations, unions and governments. We, more often than not, see safety used as a tool for the leverage of one’s objectives. When it’s rosy it adds value to corporate reputation and good standing in the community. It’s a sort of smug righteousness…a justification of the good in all socially responsible corporations. 

Of course, not only does the corporate sector seek to align with safety. We also see Government’s broadcasting their mining safety achievements and initiatives like peacocks on parade. Oh, the joy for any Government basking in a fatality-free year.

We’ll hear spin like We’re allocating more budget, creating a ‘Respiratory Health Check Van’… an Underground vehicle that can be used to escape from mines…’ New training initiatives….in India (of all places), and we’re funding improved mines inspection.’ Of course, for a bit of spice, we’ll throw in a few high techy things like virtual reality training and augmented reality initiatives.

Of course, where it all comes unstuck is when people start to die in mining accidents…when workers are seriously injured or worse still, are debilitated by chronic disease. Sometimes it comes unstuck in other ways like underground coal mines burning or workers surviving irrespirable atmospheres in mines. 

It is at these times when the gaps between the rhetoric and reality start to emerge. 

Queensland Government mine safety Minister following up…

Yesterday, on the eve of a mineworker’s funeral and on the announcement of the death of another mine worker,  Queensland’s Mines Minister Hon. Anthony Lynham said “I will be following up on discussions held last week by meeting with representatives of the mining industry … as a matter of urgency. I will be making it absolutely clear that this situation is unacceptable and requires action.”

Minister Lynham, with due respect, you’ve had a few little inklings that there’s a wee problem down the pits haven’t you?

Of course, six fatalities mightn’t have drawn your attention until now…but really….the burning mines and the chronic disease situation should have caught your attention that somethins not quite right down the pits.

Of course, to be fair to the Minister, he has announced the Respiratory Health Check Van in the last state budget and of course, there are a few bucks for mines inspection in there somewhere o keep the rogue operator’s honest.

At the risk of sounding like a ‘smart-arse’, a ‘know it all’ and a ‘keyboard warrior’ I’ve penned a few tips for you when you “make it clear that this situation is unacceptable” in your meeting with whoever it is you’re going to tell. 

The tips might actually assist you to understand some of the issues faced in mining safety across the state. By all means, the list is not exhaustive but hopefully, it’ll help your come to Jesus moment resonate a little louder.

I might add from the outset that pointing the finger at others may be somewhat fruitless at this point. You might reflect on the tenuous situation you have left yourself, and the Queensland mine safety in.

Tip One: Casualisation of the industry may result in people not having the ‘balls’ to speak up for safety.

Unfortunately many across the industry believe that if you don’t have a permanent shirt on a mine site and you speak up about safety issues, you’ll probably get a call from your employment provider the very next day. 

That call will go like this…“Ummm Anthony, umm sorry we don’t have any more work for you at the pit. Hey…. but thanks we’ll probably give you a call when we find something else.”

The back story…..Anthony isn’t a member of a union…he’s not allowed to join a union cos he’s a labour-hire scab (in the union’s eyes) and he won’t be represented by the Union if he speaks up about safety. 

His supervisor doesn’t want a complainer on the crew because…well frankly…he’s got a heap of other stuff to deal with from on high regarding safety initiatives and safety bureaucracy.

Casualisation, it appears,  has created a set of dual rules in the industry from many perspectives…safety is one of those. 

Two years ago workers’ reportedly spoke with the CFMMEU’s Stephen Smyth after the Oaky North disaster. They argued that contract labour should be included in Union Lodges and afforded representation from the union when it came to issues surrounding safety. Workers told AMSJ there was an agreement…at least in principle from Mr Smyth. Nothing happened the workers say…and that may just contribute to the ‘dual rule’ approach in the industry.

Tip Two: Training | people are being passed out without attaining competence

The production pressure in mines is pretty huge…you must keep shareholders happy above all these days. Of course, when it comes to tonnes, you need bums in haul trucks and in seats on diggers etc. You have to keep the pressure on the trainers lest they won’t produce operators fast enough. 

Yep, that’s it…produce more operators to keep pace with your demands. 

Of course, the trainers then feel like they’re the weakest link when Anthony isn’t quite competent enough to operate that haul truck or that water canon….but what the hell….the crew will help him when he’s on the job. I’ll pass him competent anyway.

There’s an immense pressure on recruiters and trainers to come up with the bums for the seats. 

We understand that, in some cases, the trainers have little more experience than those who’ve stepped onto a site for the first time. We’ve heard of trainers with little experience being tasked to train newbies. How did they get the job in the first instance…..ah well……the purple circle (Another story for another time)

We have also been informed that when training issues are addressed with the Queensland Government Mines Inspectorate…they point the compliance of training issues belongs to another department far removed from them. Let ASQA or Department of Education and Training deal with it or something like that.

Of course this issue doesn’t really become a concern for the Mine’s Inspectorate until someone dies and the inspectorate need to sift through training records to prove or deny competence.

Tip Three: Some managers and SSE’s aren’t getting out of their offices and know what is happening on their sites

It’s true in winter it’s cold in the Bowen Basin or the Central Highlands and well…the donga is a nicer place to be particularly when a cold westerly is blowing across the site. Operators have told us that some in management roles don’t understand the jobs that the boys do…So what’s wrong with this? 

Well, ultimately when the boy’s in the pit say “I’m a little worried about this boom falling off of my excavator?” They don’t have a clue what a boom is let alone what it’s going to fall from.

Ok so we are exaggerating a little but I’m sure you can get the point. 

It’s a cold hard fact that some corporates are driving their site management to the wall with administrative burden and directives from on high for the site management to get in the pit. Not all corporates, but clearly some according to the word on the haul road.

Tip Four: Announced mines inspections

Yes, it’s nice to provide 48 hours notice of inspection. The inspectorate wouldn’t want to disrupt production and that’s why, in most cases, they notify the mine 48 hours in advance. It’s a great way to build relations with the mine and to have an amicable relationship without the risk of a phone call to the Minister’s office complaining about an unannounced inspection disrupting coal royalties.

Unfortunately, mineworkers tell us that it’s a happy day on the day of the inspection…the rocks are painted white, the grass is greener and the tour guide well and truly prepared to provide responses according to current best practice in mining.

Of course, at this time the inspector feels…well…warm and fuzzy. It’s back in the car and out the gate because he can’t stay for too long. Like a sanitary product sales rep, he must-visit twenty mines in a month, he’s done the inspection and moved on to the next mine that has been provided 48 hours notice.

Yes, we are hammering it a little but in reality, the practice exists. Operators tell us of the diversionary tactics used to cover up the ‘things’ that the sites don’t want Queensland Government inspectors to see. Just remember it’s one inspector against many out there Anthony.

Tip Five – Procedures, protocols and culture 

Most of a mine’s procedures and protocols have been written in a miner’s blood. Somewhere, somehow there’s been a rationale for their existence…most likely off the back of a coronial inquiry or at the very least a high potential accident. 

The problem, of course, is that when they get in the way of production, they can slow things down and we don’t want to disappoint the shareholders…do we?

Remember the mantra “shareholder above employees” “shareholders above employees”  “shareholders above employees.”  

If you say it enough it’ll stick…right.

The mere existence of procedure and protocols at a site does not make the safety culture great. An organisation’s culture comprises an intertwined set of goals, roles, processes, values, communications practices, attitudes and assumptions. 

You can’t create a mine safety culture as a Government but you can ensure that initiatives are undertaken to measure and reinforce positive safety culture. 

You know when the safety culture is at its’ best on a mine site? Right after an accident where someone dies. So sad but true…

Do you know when the Queensland Government pays the most attention to mine safety? Right after people die like Moura or Kianga.

The absence of independent information on the ‘culture’ of safety’ at a site is problematic in itself for a regulator. Government’s should be using technology to measure and monitor safety culture on mine sites independent of the mining company…it’s easy to ‘snow‘ an inspector when he or she doesn’t know the true status.

Here’s a FREE idea from AMSJ that the Queensland Government can steal…. 

Create an APP that individual miners can download from iTunes or Google Play that periodically independently assesses the culture at a site anonymously and independently of a mining company. 

Of course, by all means, aggregate the data and provide feedback to mines but at least have a tool that can measure independently safety culture at sites. Sounds better use of resources than undertaking an overseas aid project in our books anyway.

Tip Six – When an industry is in safety turmoil, fund more mine safety inspectors, inspections and initiatives that support improved mine safety.

I think we can agree that the current rate of fatalities is an indicator of a bigger problem and it has for some time. Stephen Smyth, District President from the CFMMEU said yesterday “It’s terrible, we’re sick of it … it’s a safety crisis,” he said. “We’ve been saying there needs to be a major safety reset.”

A long time ago an old boss of mine once said you need to change hearts and minds for safety…it’s a given. Many in the industry don’t have a heart for safety because they see safety as a lie. It’s all good in principle but when it gets in the way of production then…well production always wins. It’s sometimes a David and Goliath battle for safety to gain traction on the ground.

It is apparent, to me at least (and I suspect many others), that the Queensland Government has failed to deliver on the basics of mine safety. Let me provide you with some top of mind lead indicators:

  • No industry or public pieces of advice on recent fatalities – the public doesn’t need to gory detail – THE WHO WHY WHY WHERE & WHEN are generally sufficient to focus attention ;
  • No transparency of industry high potential incidents….the department reports them to the industry a year later in an annual report. Reports of HPIs have not been included in the Department website since February 2018 – Is this a resourcing issue?
  • No responsibility for training and competence in mine safety…it’s another department’s problem.
  • It can take six-plus years to prosecute a legal case leaving families waiting for justice and more importantly answers.
  • Failure to deliver reports on significant events i.e North Goonyella Mine Fire – since September 2018.
  • Failure to provide adequate resources in the state’s budget for increased safety inspection following a spate of disasters and potential disasters;
  • Failure to provide a mine safety and health centre in Mackay close to industry.
  • Failure to address the ongoing concerns of 105 Black Lung Sufferers and others in the industry rather the Government chose to provide an arbitrary allocation of budget for a Health Screening vehicle against the advice of their own bureaucrats.
  • Failure to adequately utilise and fund a significant Government resource (i.e. Simtars) for improving mining safety here in Queensland. The current model apparently provides for Simtars to address commercial concerns over ‘public good’ concerns.
  • No initiatives to manage the safety culture in the industry.
  • No Mining Health & Safety Advisory Committee

From my perspective, the Queensland Government has failed many mine workers and their families in Queensland. 

There have been many warning signs that Queensland mine safety standards are deteriorating in Queensland. Let’s hope the recent deaths have not been in vain and are a catalyst for radical change in how the Queensland Government manages mining safety into the future.

It’s time to finally stop the chaos and the decimation of more families across the industry. The Queensland Government has the power to effect change….the question remains whether it will use it?

Read more Mining Safety News or maybe Psychologist David Broadbent on Looking after your mates

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