Mineworkers fear 'reprisals' for raising safety concerns amid spike in deaths
Summary: Contract and casual mineworkers in Queensland are fearful of “retribution” if they complain about questionable safety practices, their union says, as the sector grapples with a sixth workplace death in the past year.....
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The recent cluster of accidents and deaths, the worst on record in Queensland for 22 years, has prompted the state government to commission two independent reviews into mine safety.
In the meantime, safety experts and the mineworkers’ union have raised concern about the “reporting culture” at mine sites, where most workers are now employed on a casual basis by labour-hire companies, rather than working directly for the multinational mine operators.
“Morale is absolutely the lowest I’ve ever seen it,” the CFMEU Queensland mining and energy division president, Stephen Smyth, told Guardian Australia.
Major mining operations are increasingly staffed by workers without the security of a permanent job. About 60% are contractors working for labour hire firms.
“People don’t think they can speak up. People think: how am I going to put food on the table if I can’t get regular work? The workplace practices mean that workers, for fear of reprisals, won’t stand up and speak out.
“Something drastic has to happen. We’re calling for a reset. The industry has got to take stock, because how do you keep doing what we’re doing and nothing changes?”
Guardian Australia is aware of a recent incident at a large Queensland coalmine, where labour hire workers were instructed to operate bulldozers near a body of water, in similar circumstances to a fatal accident that occurred at a separate mine site in December.
The experienced mineworker was killed when his bulldozer rolled about 20m into a body of mud and water on 31 December. Subsequently, the Queensland government made non-binding recommendations to prevent a similar incident.
The most recent fatality occurred on Sunday. A 27-year-old mineworker, Jack Gerdes, was crushed and killed while trying to get into an excavator at the Baralaba North mine in the Bowen Basin.
On the same day another man, aged 57, was seriously injured after falling about 10m from a platform at a coalmine at Collinsville.
David Cliff, a leading health and safety expert, says modern safety standards meant all mine workplace accidents should be preventable.
“To get one or two may be an aberration,” Cliff said. “To get six is not an aberration.”
Cliff, from the Minerals Industry Safety and Health Centre, said high degrees of automation and larger machinery had resulted in fewer workers on mine sites, and workers who were required to perform more diverse tasks.
“You need to be eternally vigilant. The key to fixing things is to predict the precursor events or situations before they become an accident.
“We need to get a really good reporting culture with no fear of blame. If someone does something wrong, we don’t want them not reporting it because they’re afraid to lose their job.”
The Queensland Resources Council, in a statement on Monday, said that “no death on a mine site is acceptable”.
“Industry is working on measures for a safety reset to refocus on safety in light of the recent tragedies,” the statement said.
Real issue in workplaces
On Tuesday the Queensland mines minister, Anthony Lynham, went public to confirm that an advisory committee on mining safety had not met for four months, because it had been unable to meet state-mandated gender quotas.
While the committee’s inaction has stirred some minor political and media outrage, most in the sector acknowledge the real issues are occurring at the coalface, not in a committee room.
Cliff said it was “drawing a very long bow” to suggest the incidents were in any way linked to the committee. Smyth said issues with the committee were “a smokescreen”.
“There’s no way a committee would stop someone being killed. It’s a beat up, they’re missing the point,” Smyth said.
“The lack of experience, the lack of supervision, the push for production, the influx of labour hire. They’re the real issues.
“If I have an accident on the highway, I can be charged and go to jail. What happens with a multinational? They hire someone else and get back to business. The next CEO will get up and say safety is paramount. But they’re all full of shit. It’s a big machine and they just want production at any cost.
“Nothing is going to really change until we change the work practices.”
On Sunday, as news filtered through of the most recent fatality and another accident, residents of the Bowen Basin’s mining towns experienced a familiar panic. Most mines don’t allow workers to carry mobile phones on shift. People could not reach their loved ones.
“It flows on to their partners in the communities,” Smyth said. “When one person dies in the mining industry it has a ripple effect that runs through the communities. There’s the mental stress of it all. It’s just like one big pot.
“I was an underground coal miner, I get what they’re going through. But I haven’t seen morale as bad.”