The Carborough Downs longwall first started cutting coal in September 2009 and is yet to prove it can reach at least 4 million tonnes per annum of run-of-mine production.
The mining area is known to host geotechnical challenges and Carborough Downs had to make two longwall moves on its first block.
While even one longwall move presents a host of safety hazards, mines inspectors recently had a different reason to be alarmed.
“Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation (DEEDI) Mines Inspectors have been in contact with Vale concerning an issue with legislation at the Carborough Downs coal mine,” A DEEDI Mines spokesman told ILN.
“The concern mentioned the senior officer onsite was not appointed as the site senior executive (SSE) as he had not passed an examination.
“Vale had taken steps and appointed a temporary SSE at the mine while the senior officer sat and passed an examination.
“The Vale officer has since sat and passed the exam and is expected to take up his position as SSE at Carborough Downs later this week once all the paper work is finalised.”
When asked whether the mine had lacked a qualified SSE, Vale told ILN the mine had an accredited SSE onsite “at all times”, and the general manager of Carborough Downs is currently the accredited SSE.
DEEDI also confirmed the mine had never operated without an appointed SSE.
While the reasons behind Vale’s brush with the mine inspectorate are not clear, Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union district president Stephen Smyth revealed his concerns about the “secretive” Brazilian mining giant.
He told ILN the mine was experiencing a high turnover of important staff.
“They have people leaving,” he said.
“Just a series of people since the mine has been going, but over the last few months they have had a new manager come in, a new senior site executive, a new training officer, mainly the core positions at a minesite are the positions that people are leaving.”
Losing key staff during this resurgent skills crisis would make life difficult for any longwall mine in the country, and even tougher for a new operation facing challenging geotechnical conditions.
Smyth said the lack of a sufficient number of senior people onsite certainly made it more difficult to resolve safety issues.
“The local guys pretty well manage what goes on but they get frustrated,” he said.
But Smyth is most concerned about a “suggestion” from Vale senior management to put the two workforce-elected site safety and health representatives on permanent day shift at the mine.
“They are suggesting on putting them on permanent day shift roster with a loss of money.
“To some people they might not think that’s not much, but to me that goes against everything our legislation in Queensland is about.”
He claimed that senior management was going to create new roles and responsibilities for the two union safety representatives, “and then put them on a shift where you lose about 10 or 15 grand a year”
Vale told ILN it was actively working with its workforce-elected SSHRs to reach a “mutual understanding” of the role of the position “that best ensures safety levels onsite are not only maintained at an already high level but improve”
The Brazilian miner believes the issue raised by Smyth in this regard was a “misunderstanding”.
In previous roles Smyth has undertaken mine safety inspections, yet despite his extensive industry experience and contacts, he said he did not know who was in charge of safety at the mine or at the Vale Australia corporate level.
“I’ve had trouble to find out who they have got,” he said.
“Which is very unusual because most of the companies, the Anglos, the BHPs, the Xstratas, I know who they are – and in senior positions."
He added that senior safety representatives from these companies would be at every conference on health and safety.
“The coal industry is big but it’s not that big that you don’t know everyone in those key positions because I can name them all, [from] each mining company off the top of my head now with Anglo, Rio, Xstrata, BHP, Thiess, Leighton, all those sorts.”
Smyth suspects some of the problems at the mine stem from a culture difference experienced by its Brazilian owners.
He notes there is a growing trend in the state’s mining industry where more foreign-born staff, especially from Brazil and South Africa, are taking up management positions.
In such cases, he is concerned they might try to impose business practices from their home countries on Australia.
Ultimately Smyth is of the opinion that Vale has a steep learning curve ahead.
“They have got big views that they want to be one of the largest exporters of coal in the world,” he said.
“But they have got a little bit to learn about Australia, about Australian industry I think and culture to be honest.”
Vale was given the opportunity to respond to Smyth’s views but did not provide ILN with names of the forthcoming or current SSE, or reveal who is the corporate head of safety for its Australian operations.
“Vale is committed to the health, safety and wellbeing of all our employees and it is one of our core business values,” Vale told ILN.
“Our safety standards and protocols are well documented. Furthermore, wherever we operate, we adhere to the regulatory standards for health and safety, and we pro-actively aim to continuously improve these safety standards.
“We continually evaluate and test our safety management systems and work with workforce representatives to ensure best practice levels are maintained.
“We believe it is every person's right to return home every day in the same condition they arrived at work and this can only be achieved in a collaborative approach.
“We are proud to say the month of September has been TRC Injury-free at Carborough Downs.”
Vale also stated it used a proactive, preventative approach to health and safety and followed the applicable legislation.