Management – the importance of what comes before

A special guest for the Safe Work Australia events in Queensland was Matthew Gill, former Beaconsfield Gold mine manager.  According to a media statement from the Government

“Matthew Gill who was the public face of the Beaconsfield mine rescue will speak about how he immediately took control of the emergency and then implemented rescue operations for the three missing miners,” [Workplace Health and Safety Queensland Executive Director, Dr Simon Blackwood] said.  “Mr Gill maintained an unwavering commitment to the safety of the people conducting the rescue and to the trapped miners.

“He oversaw the rescue teams which battled 24 hours a day for 14 days to release the two miners trapped almost 1km underground. Mr Gill will relive the emotional story of finding Larry Knight’s body and having to talk to his family afterwards.

“Previously he has been involved with mine rescue at rock falls at Mt Lyell in Tasmania and in Papua New Guinea, but Beaconsfield was the first time that he had such ‘hands on’ involvement.”

Matthew Gill has a lot of skills to share on disaster management and media handling but a lot of that skill seems to come about after the rockfall in 2006 that killed Larry Knight.

Cover KNIGHT,_Larry_Paul_-_2009_TASCD_25Prior to that time, in 1995 to 1997, Matthew Gill was the Responsible Officer for the mine.  From 1997, Gill appointed other people to undertake the role that is required by legislation.  Sometimes there were three people in the role at the same time.  Professor Michael Quinlan was quoted in the Coroner’s report saying that

“……….the very notion of appointing a Responsible Officer would have little meaning unless that person so appointed exercised overall control of the workplace and could therefore make critical decisions in relation to OHS not simply recommend them, be part of them, or make decisions but not others than might affect safety. For example, as Responsible Officer Mr Ball was a participant in decisions on mine design and mining methods – decisions that have a critical effect on the safety of underground workings – but he was not the only or final decision maker.”

The Tasmanian coroner Rod Chandler,agreed that there should be only one Responsible Officer and that the legislation be amended to reflect this.

Media reports of the inquest into Larry Knight’s death reported that after rockfalls in October 2005 and various risk consultants’ reports Matthew Gill undertook some remedial work on the mine and in February 2006, Gill declared the mine safe to restart mining.  The decisions made on the basis of those consultants’ reports came under close scrutiny in the coronial inquest.

On 10 November 2008, AAP’s Paul Carter reported the following:

Lawyer Kamal Faroque [representing the Knight family and the Australian Workers’ Union] told Coroner Rod Chandler in Launceston that Allstate’s management failures contributed to Mr Knight’s death…. Mr Faroque said mine manager Matthew Gill was ultimately responsible for deficiencies in the mine’s ground supports.  “It is submitted that deficiencies in ground support contributed to the Anzac Day rockfall which killed Mr Knight,” he said.

He also said there was no reasonable basis for Allstate to conclude that it was safe for workers to return to the area after two earlier rockfalls.

“Mr Gill accepted responsibility for the decision to recommence stoping in the western zone following the October (2005) rockfalls,” Mr Faroque said.  Stoping is a mining method in which underground chambers are opened up deep beneath the surface.

Mr Faroque said the risk management process conducted following the October 2005 rockfalls was inadequate.  “It is submitted that these failures are a sound foundation for a finding that Allstate contributed to the death of Larry Knight,” Mr Faroque told the court.

There is no doubt that Matthew Gill was integral to the successful rescue of Brant Webb and Todd Russell but Gill had been employed at the mine for over a decade before the fatal rockfall and therefore was also involved with the decision-making leading up to the rockfall.  The decisions made by the company over many years should be analysed to see the combination of bad, poor, or short-term decisions that ultimately led to Larry Knight’s death and the entrapment of his colleagues.

The rescue of Webb and Russell is an exciting tale with a happy ending and at least one book and several long articles (even a school lesson plan) have been written about this.  The most lasting lessons for safety professionals, mine managers and business operators would be what contributed to the bad decisions leading to Larry Knight, Brant Webb and Todd Russell being in an unsafe working environment during a rockfall.

This is a more complex story that requires knowledge of geology, the stock markets, corporate accountability, OHS and mine safety regulations.  If this story had been Matthew Gill’s presentation during Safe Work Australia Week, it would have been worth travelling to Queensland to hear.

Kevin Jones

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