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.