The Queensland mining industry suffered its third minesite death in six months when an electrician died at BHP Billiton’s Cannington mine near Mount Isa last Friday.
The death has highlighted safety concerns within the industry, with the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union saying that miners are being pressured to work long hours in sometimes unsafe conditions.
Queensland Resources Council chief executive Michael Roche said it was not in the interests of the industry to skimp on matters of workplace safety.
“We only have our social licence while we maintain our commitment to safety,” he said. “It doesn’t make sense that we’d risk cutting corners on safety.”
CFMEU industry safety and health representative Greg Dalliston labelled 2005-06 as one of the worst years for mine safety in the last 20 years. He said mine companies should pay more attention to the fatality and high potential incident rates (near misses) instead of focusing on overall industry improvement for lost time injuries rates.
The comments come after a Queensland government report on mine safety revealed record high near misses and rising rates of disabling injuries.
The Queensland Mines and Quarries Safety Performance and Health Report for 2005-06 reported 839 near misses. This figure represents 124 more than last year and is the highest number since records began. In the underground coal sector, the report showed 123 high potential incidents were recorded, compared to 112 for 2004-05.
The report also showed an increase in lost injury time in the underground coal mines and rising severity rates in the sector. Underground coal mines recorded the highest amount of disabling injuries of any sector at 236, compared to 154 the previous year.
While conceding that many industry players had a strong commitment to safety, Dalliston said that a lack of experience and comprehensive training were major factors in mine safety incidents.
He added that complex reporting practices obscured true safety figures, for example non-workplace road fatalities associated with the effects of long working hours.
Dalliston backed up reports of tired miners falling asleep at the wheel of large mine machinery and said that a combination of long shifts and lengthy commutes (often related to a lack of housing close to the minesite) contributed to road fatalities and other safety issues associated with fatigue.
“We’ve had – just in the last six months or so – at least five incidents where fatigue’s been a problem.”
He said he was aware of some miners who had to commute more than three hours for a 12-hour shift.
Describing accident levels as “unacceptable” the QRC’s Roche said that the results of the report reflected an increase in the reporting of high potential incidents. He said the council’s “when in doubt, report it” philosophy allowed the industry to better pinpoint and understand trouble spots.
Roche advocated greater dialogue and information so that industry could learn from its mistakes and said the industry could not afford to rest on its laurels.
“Collectively we have a duty on behalf of some 37,000 mining industry employees to get it right and keep on getting it right,” he said.
Roche said the only acceptable safety level was one of zero harm to all employees, a challenge the QRC said it would pursue through the elimination of potential causes of accidents, the proactive reporting of potential risks and transparent cooperation between mine operators, employees and the State Government.
“The recent fatality in northwest Queensland is both a tragedy for that young man’s family, friends and work mates as well as being a real kick in the guts for the industry as a whole,” said Roche.