The smoke from the mine:

It has been a frighteningly bad month in the mining industry internationally.  OHS meetings I attended during this period have been hushed as a result of the New Zealand tragedies.  Discussions about OHS have become more pertinent and more accurate – for the time being.  But this, like stunning but short-lived cactus flowers, will quickly disappear.

Because I’ve had close involvement with the Beaconsfield Gold Mine rockfall that killed Larry Knight, and years earlier with the Esso Longford explosions and fires in Victoria, the CrossCity tunnel fatality in Sydney… and many other tragedies or near misses, such events, like a sudden cramp, re-focus my thinking on current issues.  Another OHS failure that we didn’t stop.

Quad bike safety:

One such issue I’ve been involved in for some time has been the quad bike safety issue. The fatality statistics I have on these machines in Australia show that over the last 10 years 13 people (on average) are killed per year.  130 people, most of whom, the industry will have you believe, were ‘mis-users’ of the machines (see below).  The trend is up not down.

I have just resigned from the TransTasman Quad Bike safety committee created by the regulators last year.   The OHS and quad bike interest group in the community may be interested in some of the difficulties I see with the current work on this issue.

The obvious and useless in practice:

I think a much greater degree of transparency and openness – including a high level public conference – ought to take place.  And neither the regulators nor industry will be interested in that;

I believe that the committee’s final recommendations are likely to range over:

  1. Matters to do with training (including aspects of dynamic riding, which the industry considers essential);
  2. Matters to do with helmets;
  3. Matters to do with the use of accessories;
  4. Matters to do with kids;
  5. Matters to do with communications, education, awareness, advertising etc.;
  6. Matters to do with effective point of sale advice and choice of machine…. etc.

Some of these matters ought to be considered (yet again), including the perennial question of how to get reasonable uptake by what the industry (as a whole) regards as ‘mis-users’.  But these particular protections are obvious no-brainers; there was no need for this giant committee – with some 8-10 industry representatives (or associates) – for that.

User neglect’ they call it:

In the meantime the industry is working on their own version of a ‘code of practice’ in which an early paragraph (depressing in 2010!) sets the tone:

“…… the USA, where nearly 7 million ATVs are in use, an analysis of accident data collected by the Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates (2001) that 92% of ATV fatalities are the result of user neglect of on-vehicle warning labels, and the remaining deaths are the result of other forms of misuse warned against in owner’s manuals.  The principal forms of misuse involve not wearing a helmet approved for ATV use, carrying passengers on single operator ATVs, use of adult sized ATVs by children under 16 years old, use on paved surfaces, lack of suitable training, overloading and use of alcohol and drugs whilst operating ATVs.” [Emphasis added]

Regardless of how you view the naïve or dishonest use of such orphan quotes you can readily see it’s intended to convey that neither the manufacturers nor their machines are to blame.  This is very poor and very old-fashioned approach to OHS.   The quote below from Michael Tooma may help explain what I mean.

“The principle that you must always strive towards lasting and effective health and safety risk controls is fundamental to the belief system of anyone serious about safety. It is a non-negotiable principle.  It’s a learning paid for by the lives of thousands of Australian workers over the years. It’s a principle that is currently enshrined in legislation around the country.”

“As the renowned author Professor Kletz is fond of saying: to say that human error is the cause of an accident is about as instructive as saying that gravity is the cause of a fall. Both are true but they are not particularly helpful observations. The better question is what controls were there to guard against such errors.

Accident after accident we seem to be constantly amazed that employees would make obvious mistakes, as if human frailty is somehow a revelation worthy of a breaking news alert.  Relying on lower order risk controls, however, exposes the workplace to precisely the above reality. If an employee will not wear their hard hat or attach their harness suggests that a more effective control is necessary to prevent incidents.

Also, studies have shown that poor design is the root cause of most accidents.”

Michael Tooma, National J. of  NSCA, November 2010

Proneness to Rollover in normal usage

  • I am hardly the first to write that some (probably the majority sold) of these quads-in-normal-usage are prone to rollover.   They are operationally dangerous machines for the typical user;
  • These machines are used by ordinary people living a life with all its pressures and ups and downs.   The vast majority will not do the daily 23 checks, they will not check brakes, cables, instruments, handle bars, tyre pressure etc.  Most will not have been formally trained nor are they interested in this extra burden – even if it would help.
  • Yet the industry prefers to discuss dispositional philosophy and semantics, i.e. is it the machine’s ‘disposition’ (proneness to rollover), or is it poor usage (mis-use)?   After all, there are in all some 20 warnings across the users’ manual and stuck on the machines.  Surely riders must take note of that?!
  • The industry will not clearly – and up front – identify that proneness-in -usage, nor, I believe, are training schools or trainers associated with the industry likely to state that;
  • My starting position is that I believe that in a range of circumstances such rollovers will be protected against to some degree by the use of a Potentially Life Saving Device (PLSD), such as the QuadBar, which has face value validity as a PLSD. The industry is not likely to support or state that, (also see quote below);

“We learnt that lesson the hard way in the 19th century. It took the worst excesses of the industrial revolution for us to realise that factory owners will not necessarily guard moving parts of machinery, preferring administrative controls such as systems of work, instruction and training.

Indeed, as a Scottish spinning master famously declared in parliament in response to a Bill seeking the fencing in of moving parts of machinery.  “I have no hesitation in saying that, if passed into law, it would be utterly impracticable for any man to conduct an establishment where machinery is used… Every practical man knows the absolute impossibility of fencing in all the machinery in a spinning mill which may come under the denomination of dangerous…” – Tooma

  • Some fundamental good research not under the control of the industry (or traditional research approaches) needs to be quickly performed on such PLSDs, and specifically on the QBar.  Such research needs to be advised by people with some OHS experience (and quad bike riding experience) not just engineering dogma and uncertainty.  The industry is not likely to accept that;
  • The relevant ministers in each state, Safe Work Australia and Comcare need to be informed of the likely results of this committee’s work and that not a single aspect of that effort will address the fact that some of these machines are prone to rollover and are therefore dangerous.  And the industry will object.
  • If this comment seems unfair or harsh ask yourself this:  what reductions in deaths or injuries are likely to result from the work of this committee in the next 10-15 years?

The committee’s Regulator-directed work is now drifting strongly towards producing material that implicitly blames users and presumed ‘misuse’.  It’s the accusative, pointing finger of ‘You the user must do this to improve safety…….’.   Nothing in that points to machine design or PLSDs.

I’m more interested to start from the position that human behaviour, its variability and opportunism must be accepted as a fact informing design; a very old-fashioned ergonomic principle.  Therefore, as I see it, some of these prone-to-rollover-quads-in-usage are dangerous and more people will be killed.  I’m well aware of the ‘sky will fall in’ tone related to tractors and ROPS, and am not prepared to just support the obvious and minimalist position, whilst these machines kill as many or more than the entire mining industry in Australia per year.

Dr Yossi Berger
National OHS Co-ordinator
Australian Workers’ Union