Over the last few days at the Tasmanian inquest into the death of Larry Knight, several geotechnical consultants and experts have been going through their reports to Beaconsfield Mine management. These assessment reports were undertaken before the collapse that caused Larry Knight’s death. The impression from media reports is that mine management listened to, or read, the recommendations and made a decision. That decision seems to have not given the technical advice the weight that hindsight now shows was insufficient but hindsight does that and Coroners understand this.
Also safety decisions are made by the employer in consultation with their workforce and external experts, where necessary. Beaconsfield Mine management did this. The decision to mine on that fateful day obviously proved wrong but perhaps the decision was understandable.
The Australian on 12 August 2008 reported that senior technical consultant Frans Basson admitted that the mine was technically “in breach of his written recommendation to management”. I found this extraordinary as “breach” is a term more often applied to when a rule is broken. It seems that the mine management chose not take on the recommendation of a consultant. That happens all the time but to give the decision more significance than this is, perhaps, a little unfair. Let’s hope this was lawyer’s hyperbole.
How to describe the comments by former Mt Lyell engineering supervisor and ex-parliamentarian, Peter Schulze is more of a challenge. Inaccurate is probably the most generous term. At a Tasmanian Legislative Council committee on 13 August 2008, Peter Schulze criticised “all these experts who pontificate with the benefit of hindsight” about mine accidents. Okay, the wording is extreme but he makes a similar point to mine above.
He also echoes some of the recent criticisms of the OHS regulator in Tasmania, Workplace Standards. By inverting some of his comments reported in The Advocate on 14 August 2008, he believes that current inspectors are under-skilled in the mining sector and under-paid and that there are not enough. I would support him in his calls for additional enforcement resources but he is confused over the role of the inspectorate.
The primary responsibility for safety in a workplace is held by the employer – the controller of the workplace and main beneficiary of its productivity. Peter Schulze says that
“The inspectorate tends to isolate itself from accidents and comes in to blame the company … rather than being a party (to safety procedures and checks) and accepting some responsibility.”
Why on earth should a government department accept any responsibility for the operations of a privately-run business when there is legislation that states the responsibility rests with the employer?
Peter sees the system as being adversarial. There are clear roles for the differing elements in a workplace but conflict is resolved through negotiation, consultation and resolution. An adversarial climate in a workplace indicates a dysfunctional workplace but this does not mean the regulatory system is at fault. Safety management systems are a systematic management of a workplace with the aim of improving safety. Management is the key and this rests with the employer.