Mining Minister’s safety claims challenged

Two days ago, Ian Macdonald, the New South Wales Minister for Mineral Resources opened the annual conference of the NSW Minerals Council. It was  a dour presentation but delegates said that the Minister is not the most exciting public speaker.  Macdonald announced a new research program into safety culture, an announcement that did not get much response from the conference delegates, although the project is significant.

The day after opening the conference the Minister releases

“the State’s first Coal Mine Safety Audit Report of over 290 coal mining operations in NSW.”

Did he not think that such a report would have been important to launch at a conference of over 400 NSW mining delegates which included several CEOs of NSW mining corporations?

In a media statement, the Minister said:

“This is an historic report being the first comprehensive audit of coal mine safety plans in this State dealing not just mechanical, electrical and health & safety management plans, but also Contractor Management – the most vulnerable sector of workers in the industry.  It has been a massive and comprehensive task covering 290 mine sites over twelve months…”

This importance compounds the puzzlement on the release of the report.  And it is not as if the Minister did not know about it.  The report is dated February 2010.

The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper on 5 May 2010 reports on some criticism of the report by Professor Michael Quinlan of the University of New South Wales.  Quinlan undertook an exhaustive analysis of the risk management and risk assessment procedures of the Beaconsfield Mine as part of the inquiry into the death of worker, Larry Knight.  Quinlan criticises the report as a desktop audit that does not indicate the level of safety at coal mines.  It is a report that indicates that a risk management process has been gone through.  The newspaper reports, Quinlan saying:

“All they’ve really done is go through the paperwork in the mine offices to check whether the mines have adopted the various management systems required by the legislation. But these management systems only work if they’re implemented. What really needs to be done is to randomly select a number of places that have been audited and check the implementation – talk to managers, talk to workers, talk to the union, actually go down into the mine observe what’s going on.”

The Minister says a field audit was part of the process but there seems to be no mention of this in the report.   The report itself states its own limitations:

“It provides a snapshot of the coal mining industries’ overall compliance with the statutory requirements regulating health and safety management systems…”

Quinlan’s argument seems to be that the Minister is claiming greater significance for the report than the report was structured to be.   It is hard not to disagree.

It is an undeniable reality that industries and the executives of those industries can gain a false sense of security by undertaking reviews and audits that reinforce established perceptions.  It is good that the mining industry complies with its OHS legislative requirements but this should never be mistaken as a measure of safety.

It is also useful to note that in the foreword to the report, Minister Macdonald states:

“This Government is fully committed to achieving zero deaths and serious injury in NSW mining and extractive industry.”

This is a worthy goal but if the Minister had stayed at the Minerals Council conference a day longer, he would have heard a powerful presentation showing that such a commitment was a delusion.

Kevin Jones

reservoir, victoria, australia
Categories business, government, Inspectors, mining, OHS, politics, risk, safety, statistics, UncategorizedTags , , ,

5 thoughts on “Mining Minister’s safety claims challenged”

  1. \”…inundated by disappointment\”? Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm. (attributed to Winston Churchill).
    – On the other hand, \”Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.\” (attributed to Albert Einstein).

    Small business employs approximately half of this country\’s workers (5.2 million). I sometimes get to the end of my patience and of my belief with a certain class of employers and employees whose perception of, and attention to, workplace safety risks is so minimal as to be insignificant.

    Usually they protest that they care about the safety of people in their workplaces. Yet the employers have taken steps only to (fake) demonstrate \’compliance\’ with workplace safety legislation – as they understand it. Very little attention is paid to the real business of prevention. Too much time and actual mental effort is required, it seems.

    Many of these operators will tell you they don\’t have the time and resources to do the work themselves, yet they expend their time and money and resources of their business on the inadequate and the incompetent. DIY seems simpler and far more effective by comparison!

    A typical growth in safety conciousness scenario can entail:
    -as little as providing a bit of PPE and instructing employees to \”work safely\”;
    -devolving responsibility for the all safety to an untrained and uncertain supervisor or admin staff;
    -paying for and downloading generic safe operating procedures/JSAs/SWMSs – then without any modification to reflect their own processes and procedures, providing these as evidence of safe systems of work;
    -paying exhorbitant fees for \’safety in a box\’ solutions such as generic safety manuals or safety management software (that they often don\’t know how to use/implement – it stays in the box);
    -paying an often unqualified and less than competent safety advisor to advise on safety \’improvements\’ – generally after an incident in which someone has been injured.
    – finally (perhaps after a number of incidents) they will turn to a more reliable advisor, system or source of information, and the scales fall from their eyes and the sickening realisation sinks in that the solutions to their issues were available and accessible all along.

    Why is it so hard for some small business employers to actually grapple with safety and health risks? Is there something hardwired into some brains that automatically overrides the perception of risk to the person? Is this perhaps a defining characteristic of the \’little\’ entrepreneur in business? And how to get through to them? I hope to find solutions…

    – \”Hope is the thing with feathers…\” (emily dickinson)

    1. I am not known for being able to quote literature but your comment reminded me of that famous quote from one of the earliest advocates for workplace wellness and health checks – Emily Dickinson 🙂 :

      \”Because I could not stop for Death, he kindly stopped for me…\”

  2. Thanks Kevin, I do not resile one whit from my comments, the following is a report from \”Adelaide Now\” 05/05/10 which completely supports my view.

    \”Last updated: May 05, 2010
    Search for:

    Weather: Adelaide 11°C – 18°C . Shower or two.
    Grieving mum wants law changes

    * Ken McGregor
    * From: The Advertiser
    * May 05, 2010 3:13PM

    THE mother of a young apprentice killed in a horrific workplace accident wants the coroner to shake up \”inadequate\’\’ occupational health and safety laws.

    State Coroner Mark Johns is today holding an inquest into the 2004 death of Daniel Madeley.

    Outside court Daniel\’s mother, Andrea Madeley said if National Safe-Work organisations had worked together, and reported accidents similar to her son\’s, he may still be alive.

    \”People have been dying like this for years… the excuses just have to stop. There is a clear understanding in my head that things were just not up to speed,\’\’ Ms Madeley said.

    \”They need to share information about machines that have had accidents, it may just be the catalyst that makes someone aware that something has not been done.\’\’

    Representing her family, Ms Madeley told the court that between 2002 and 2004 there had been two serious accidents involving similar machines to the horizontal bore which had killed her son.

    Daniel died from closed chest trauma after his dust jacket became stuck in the bore.

    The court heard the bore was built in the USSR in the 1970\’s and its spindle was capable of turning at up to 1000 rpm.

    Daniel\’s employer, Diemould Pty Ltd was last year fined $72,000 by the Industrial Court – a South Australian record for an individual death.

    Outside court, Ms Madeley repeated her pleas for the directors of Diemould to face criminal charges over Daniel\’s death.

    \”There still are companies who are weighing up the costs of making something safe against the cost of doing that and are deciding to take the risk and run with it,\’\’ she said.

    \”Inside a jail cell is the place for them. For the rest of the life I have to live without my son, I look at this (accident) and it is just so preventable.

    \”I have never loved anything, I will not ever love anything as much as my son.\’\’

    The inquest is continuing. \”

    I repeat, enforceable prescriptive legislation that clearly spells out the consequences of non compliance and on the spot very substantial fines for those responsible including mandatory incarceration for more serious preventable accidents.

    There is absolutely no justification for not taking a hard-line approach, because nothing else has worked and it is only when the decision makers are at risk of significant financial and legal pain will they take the necessary action and maybe, become a lot more proactive in insisting on an absolute safety culture in their work places and providing the resources and management structure to run it. Gosh! they may find it actually improves productivity.

    In closing, I have to say that the nuggets of hope I have looked for over the years have not turned out be anything on the gold scale but more like the dross from a foundry pot in regard to workplace safety. Unfortunately all gains have been made by dragging employers through every process known to get to the point we are now and that is?????????????????????

    A few multi million dollar fines and and jail terms for those responsible just might be the ticket. Maybe a whole board of a company spending 30 days in jail for a serious transgression just might make the community sit up and take notice.

  3. The culture has not changed, safety at the coal face is not the priority as evidenced by the concentration on form and process and the feeding at the teat by the hangers on, who do little other than spin and create endless reports of no real significance that do not advance the cause of safety on the shop floor.

    I would be bold enough to suggest that if we were to revisit this in 2 years time we would be no further advanced in terms of lost time injury improvement or genuine and significant reduction in workplace injuries in general.

    The curse of the injured worker is in the main, \”Back injury\” in its many forms, but as an example of spin and maneuver we see the description of said injuries named everything but, to disguise the very lacklustre injury reduction performance since statistics began. This dishonest approach to telling the real story continues to cloud the real and urgent need for \”direct action\” either by government or the missing in action shop floor representatives of Unions, those we trust to protect us from the unscrupulous or just plain ignorant persons responsible for providing a safe work environment.

    There has been an Amazon rain forest of paper on the subject of safety from every perspective with advancement that we would need a high powered microscope to measure in effectiveness.

    If Mr. Rudd is prepared to get into the face of the big guys to the tune of billions of dollars then those really concerned with the application of safety at the coal face really need to show some of the same stuff.

    I suspect that I am right when it comes to practical safety improvement (just check with the suppliers of safety equipment they will confirm the attitude towards cost of safety by employers which gives great insight into priorities).

    I have been involved in coal face safety and the aftermath of workplace injuries for close to 30 years and I have to say nothing much has changed except the cost of safety has now escalated unnecessarily as a result of an overstuffed fat bureaucracy, government and private that is questionable in the delivery of anything of substance in reduction of injury and I don\’t mean improvement of systems, I mean real reduction in numbers, severity and types of injuries, which are clearly identified and not interfered with by spin merchants trying to minimise bad news impact.

    The following statement by the minister is a clear example of the rubbish we are expected to swallow on a continuous basis:
    \”This Government is fully committed to achieving zero deaths and serious injury in NSW mining and extractive industry.”
    There have been literally thousands of such statements made over the years and in the main remain exactly what this statement is \”HOT AIR\”.

    Workplace injury is a \”NO BRAINER\” the question is, who profits by not seeing prescriptive and enforceable legislation and regulations being in place to force compliance with the law?

    I continue to be disappointed and a touch angry at the very obvious lack of real concern shown for ones fellow man by those in a position to effect real change.

    1. Tony

      As one progresses in the OHS profession (or simply gets older) it is very easy to feel inundated by disappointment. There are some times when to let go is the best strategy for one\’s sanity but in safety I have found to look for the nuggets of hope. Sometimes these are very hard to find this week, as I spoke with delegates at a mining conference, I could not fault their commitment to safety. The commitment was there from the miners from the pits and tunnels through to the CEOs, and I spoke with several across that industry spectrum.

      There is certainly the need for alternative safety perspectives in that industry and some sectors would resist any change very strongly. But what the Minerals Council did was clever in that the conference was as much about communicating safety as it was about mining safety. Some delegates I overheard wanted more mining stuff but others appreciated the exposure to views from outside the mining sector. And some of those perspectives were the most challenging that I have heard in well over a decade of safety conferences.

      I don\’t agree that bureaucracy has increased the cost of safety but I do say that the way business and regulators approach safety is due for a radical overhaul, and not, sadly, through the new OHS legislation in Australia. I suspect that that legislation will complicate safety management and increase costs in the long-term by providing too much freedom for companies to determine their own level of compliance.

      In short, it is likely to get worse before it gets better.

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