ILN spoke to Rob Regan, chief inspector of coal mines, Department of Mineral Resources, New South Wales, on some issues surrounding the new 1999 Regulations to the Coal Mines Regulation Act 1982.
ILN: On the 1999 Regulations, what do you think will be the main benefits to flow to the underground coal sector?
Regan: The main benefits will be a move away from a compliance mentality to seeking best practice and appropriate practices for specific coal mining operations. Employee consultation, both initially to prepare the baseline systems and plans, and in ongoing development and review will increase all mine personnel's appreciation of the hazards and risks associated with both day to day activities and major core risks. From a regulator's viewpoint we will also move from policing the prescription to assessing the practices and implementation at an interactive workplace level. The recent Isolation Assessments performed by Safety Operations personnel (inspectors and mine safety officers) is an excellent example of how we intend to progress under this new legislation. The ongoing benefits of this type of legislation will be to steadily increase the overall industry standards of safe work practices by relaying better practices from mine to mine and from external industries and sources through the planned assessments of Safety Operations.
ILN: Some of the Occupational Health and Safety practitioners and mine managers I have spoken to make the following comments in regard to the 1999 Regulations: "The new legislation suggests a pulling away from responsibility on behalf of the DMR and a transfer of all responsibility to the mine site."
Regan: The DMR maintains the position that those who create the hazards by operating have the responsibility, both morally and at law, to identify and control such hazards. Safety Operations officers continue to have the function to ensure that operators accept this responsibility and are held accountable where they fail to do so. Safety Operations officers continue to be responsible to inform mine managers of any dangers to the safety or health the mine or mine employees. This may be as in the past where facilities or mining conditions appear so, or it may be in the design or implementation of plans, systems or schemes.
ILN: There is a perception that inspectors will no longer play the role of assisting the industry with technical and engineering issues around safety, but will now assume a 'policing' role aligned to the Workcover model - handing out tickets for incursions.
Regan: As I mentioned previously, Safety Operations officers will have a continuing and increasing role to assist industry with their broader perspective and depth of knowledge gained from implementation of the new regulations and the program of assessments that follow from this. Safety Operations officers have always had complete power of persuasion legislated in the Coal Mines Regulations Act and Mines Inspection Act. The powers of our inspectors to direct mine managers to do whatever is necessary to rectify unsafe situations, including ceasing operations, is a very compelling adjunct to that of advice from experienced industry people.
ILN: Some inspectors say they will be able to continue offering advice through the guidelines. Your comments?
Regan: Safety Operations inspectors and mine safety officers will continue to be able to advise industry on practical and legislative matters as well as guidelines, codes of practice and standards.
ILN: If this is indeed the case, some have said that the central question then is what is the ongoing role of the DMR and the inspectorate?
Regan: The role and function of Safety Operations is to continue to ensure compliance with the legislation, by a number of means including various assessment, licensing, approval, certification processes, education, advice, persuasion and enforcement. We will continue to consult and relay our views and those of industry to build better safety performance in the mining industry.
ILN: Once the Guidelines make the transition from draft to finalised what will be expected of mines?
Regan: Mine managers will be expected to take note of this information and consider whether they need to update their plans, systems, schemes, rules or work instructions in accordance. I see this as the next round of improvement activity. This will reinforce the need for consultation, especially where the guidelines offer new and better ways to achieve safety and health performance compared to the managers' existing systems.
ILN: What is the status of finalised guidelines from a legal standpoint? Are not guidelines, by their very nature, just that? Open to varying interpretation?
Regan: Once a guideline, code of practice or standard is specified by publishing in the NSW government Gazette, they have the weight of law constituted by the Coal Mines Regulation Act and Regulations. All these items are developed by consultation with operators, employees safety representatives and the Safety Operations officers and are an agreed position of professional and industry best practice.
ILN: Concern was raised over whether coal operations would take on their new responsibilities in a full and committed manner. Do manager's fully grasp the principles of duty of care? Without management's commitment, one person said, the whole process is doomed. How can this be overcome bearing in mind the historic baggage of the past?
Regan: My observation is that the DMR, company ceo's, managers, and employees, who consulted over and ultimately decided the changes that were introduced last September, are committed to a safe and healthy mining industry. Every person employed in the mining industry has a close friend or relative involved in the industry. They realise that safety is not just an engineering or system solution, but a personal commitment to each other. I will continue to try to focus industry on this personal behavioural aspect of safety. As we all adopt the new habits required by the new legislation we will generate a safer way of operating. This will, in time, become the culture of the NSW mining industry. It will be "the way we do things here", and we will do these things because they keep everyone safe and healthy.