Retiring Queensland district union inspector Bill Allison says industry’s tough times must evoke extra vigilance.
When a miner is seriously injured or dies on the job, the repercussions extend way beyond his immediate family and friends. Those who witnessed the incident, those who investigate it, other miners at the mine in question, the mine manager, suppliers of equipment, the industry at large, all seem to endure some kind of psychological damage when someone is killed.
One man whose life was inexorably changed when he witnessed such an incident is retiring district union inspector Bill Allison. In the 22 years Allison has been on the job 52 men have died in Queensland, all preventable accidents, he said.
He has been intimately involved with each of these accidents, in some cases helping dig victims out, and he describes in painful detail the circumstances surrounding each one and of the families he sat next to during investigations. Allison will not be sorry to leave these difficult experiences behind.
Some 39 years ago, when he first came to coal mining as a trainee miner, he was young and “invulnerable”. His attitude towards safety was: “it will never happen to me”. All this changed when his friend and mentor, Eddie Rowles, was killed in front of him in 1966 while working underground at Huntley colliery in NSW.
“He was very safety conscious and he always used to say watch those ribs,” Allison recalled. “As I looked up to see if he was ready the rib came down, crushed him against the miner and he was killed. That changed my whole attitude towards safety. Before that I had no fear — death happened to old people. But that had a huge impact on me.”
Of major concern right now, according to Allison, is that the current economic climate has shifted the focus away from safety. At the moment people are more concerned with job security and keeping their mines open.
“Whenever times are tough at a mine and people are worried about job security that’s when we’ve got to be extra vigilant,” he said.
Allison believes an often overlooked aspect of the 1994 Moura disaster in Queensland, in which 11 men died, was that both men and management were under pressure to keep the mine going and get out as much coal as they could. “They had heating underground and they still went underground. No-one contacted us (the CFMEU). That wouldn’t normally happen.
“Both mine management and the men are in the same boat. They’re both going to lose their jobs if the mine closes. The decision (to do something which may be unsafe) is made in silence. No-one says you’ve got to go and do something unsafe. No-one does that, of course they don’t. But the pressures are there.”
Allison said responsibility for safety rested with senior company management who had to stress the importance of safety and put things in place “that don’t allow too much flexibility for local management as far as the safety issues are concerned”. The problem often was that senior management may be in an office in another state and subject to pressures such as dropping share prices or reducing margins. All these reasons, Allison suggested, were not good enough. The onus rested with management.
Of major concern to Allison right now is the fact that accidents seemed to occur in peaks and troughs. After a major incident when several people were killed Allison, the industry generally became very safety conscious. “Quite often, for the first year or two after a disaster, there won’t be a fatality or they’ll be right down. But after about four or five years the disaster is generally forgotten and people go back to their old ways.
“We are in a trough at the moment and I think we are more likely than not to have a major event in the next couple of years if people don’t focus on managing the risks at their mine. They really need to have a look at what are the possibilities of things going wrong and put things in place to ensure they don’t happen.”
This coupled with the current economic situation made for a potentially lethal mix.
Allison’s view on lost time injury frequency rates (LTIFR) was also instructive. While companies, mines and contractors alike frequently cited their LTIFRs as an indication of mine safety, Allison said these types of accidents were generally minor. But the attention paid to this measure of safety sometimes came at the expense of attention to conditions which could lead to serious or fatal accidents.
“Some people are really doing things right and really managing the high consequence injuries but they are also doing a lot about the low consequence ones as well,” he said. “Those mines have a genuine low LTIFR and you could say those mines have a very low probability of having a fatality or serious fatality. There are others where the LTIs are low, but I can tell you the chances of them having a fatality or serious accident are quite high.”
Furthermore, Allison did not believe a low LTIFR necessarily indicated a mine was safer. The week before the 1994 Moura explosion, the mine had its lowest LTIFR on record.
“That’s telling you something surely,” Allison said. “In essence: focus on the things that are going to kill or seriously injure people. Don’t focus so much on the things that people can cut themselves on.”
Carrying out risk assessments remained one of management’s best tools, Allison said, but he added these had to be performed by a good facilitator who made sure everyone had a say and that the group was a mixture of professionals and hands-on people who understood the process.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of Allison’s industry critique is that fatality rates over the past 100 years have not changed much.
“The reason fatalities are down is because of the quality of first aid and medicine, not safer mining conditions. A few years ago if a person lost a leg, they died. Today you lose two legs and you survive. It’s not a fatality,” he said.
“I read one example which occurred at the turn of the century when a person drove a pick into his knee and died of blood poisoning.”
Allison was an idealist when he joined the union to work towards safer operating conditions in Queensland mines. His final message to the industry is encapsulated in a presentation made to all mines’ safety representatives detailing the circumstances surrounding each of the 52 accidents. His continuing hope is to prevent further accidents by communicating some of the lessons he has learned.