OHS and public health at The Coal Face

The Hazelwood mine fire has faded from the memory of most Victorians following the Parliamentary inquiry but not so for those who continue to live in the Latrobe Valley and with the health consequences of the fire.  Tom Doig has written a short book on the incident and its consequences that will put pressure on the Andrews (Labor) Government to honour its election promise and reopen the inquiry.

Doig’s book, The Coal Face, summarises many of the issues raised by the inquiry by looking at a selection of personal stories from residents, neighbours and firefighters.  It is a short book of just over 100 pages but it is an important reminder that the consequences of the mine fire are still being felt.

The book is not an expose a la The Killing of Karen Silkwood as it does not have the overt anger and anti-corporate sentiment but those elements are present through the application of restraint in the writing and the use of ‘cliffhangers”.  For instance, early in the book, neighbours of the mine are watching the fire develop:

“From Simon’s verandah, everyone peered between the two trees on Comans Street to Hazelwood Power Station, which was illuminated by the flames. Another explosion. In the blinding flash, all Simon could see was the silhouette of two little trees.” (page 10)

The book then cuts to a story of another resident.  The drama is obvious and does not need labouring.  The tightness of the writing encourages the reader on.

The owner of the mine, GDF Suez, did not co-operate with Doig for the book, nor did any of the workers but the book does not suffer from this.  In fact, GDF Suez’s decision making looks all the worse for not providing an alternative interpretation to that of the residents and witnesses. Doig was able to quote from several radio interviews with a company spokesperson, Trevor Rowe, very early in the fire’s development.  Hindsight reveals the values of the company.

“‘Look, our experience in years gone by, Scott, is that they are very difficult fires to manage,’ Rowe replied. ‘But, as I said, this area is well away from our operating area so we don’t have that concern.'” (page 8)

The focus on the “operating area” is taken up later in the book when the emergency management focus of the company remains on the area being mined rather than the disused areas where the fire started.  The clear implication of productivity over, in this case, public health.

The book is certainly not a corporate exposé of GDF Suez but Doig makes a brief reference to another incident involving toxic emissions from a GDF Suez coal power plant in Italy.

“In March 2014, an Italian judge ordered police to seize and close down the Vado Ligure coal power station in Italy’s north. The judge ruled that toxic emissions from the Vado Ligure power station, which is 50 per cent owned by GDF Suez, had caused 442 premature deaths between 2000 and 2007. ‘We do not understand the rationale for this decision,’ GDF Suez responded, before calling the health study linking emissions and deaths ‘biased’.” (page 52, link added)

An inquiry into an earlier, 2005, fire at Hazelwood made a recommendation for a risk assessment of a non-operational area:

“The report recommended that ‘a risk assessment should be undertaken on the non-operational areas [of the mine] to determine if further work is required.’ As GDF Suez Senior Mine Planner Romeo Prezioso admitted to the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry, this risk assessment never happened.” (page 57)

This issue of risk assessments in the mining sector has been analysed in great depth by Professor Michael Quinlan,  particularly following the Beaconsfield mine collapse.

Doig’s book does not include much on worker safety as it is traditionally perceived.  No workers died.  But occupational health and safety (OHS) has long since stopped being solely about worker health.  As soon as OHS law began including the impact of work activities on workers and others, OHS bled into the area of public health.  Sadly the OHS regulators seem to be slow in accepting the consequences of the legislative expansions and providing sufficient resources, or inter-departmental co-operation, to the issue.

In an article about the book published on 23 March 2015 in The Age, the absurdity of a media ban is obvious.

“Company spokesman Trevor Rowe told Fairfax Media it chose not to participate because doing so may have interfered with the re-opening of the inquiry.

He said workers’ claims about health and safety, however, were “absolute rubbish” and unverified.

“It’s very easy to stand back and make those sorts of claims, but unless you can substantiate it, why would we chose to respond to it?” he said.

He said the company’s policy to ban employees from speaking to the media was also standard practice across many industries and would not change in the future.”

There is a healthy amount of information still available on the mine inquiry website particularly the full report.  It is also recommended that the submissions and hearing transcripts be looked at for those really keen on understanding the incident.

However The Coal Face was never intended to be a rehash of the inquiry report and submissions.  It is both an update on the current status of the inquiry (inactive) and an insight into the public health effects of the fire’s smoke on Latrobe Valley residents without the hyperbole of the tabloid media or the formality of statements to the government inquiry.  There are enough hints in its mention of GDF Suez for someone to produce a detailed analysis of the corporate practices of GDF Suez AND the previous operators and owners of the Hazelwood power station following its privatisation in the 1980s and 1990s, in a similar fashion to Gideon Haigh’s book on James Hardie Industries, “Asbestos House“.

Penguin Books has published The Coal Face as part of its Penguin Specials imprint.  These are short books (around 100 pages) with a retail price of $A10.00 ($A3.99 for a e-book).  The Coal Face provides a terrific evening’s reading and reminds us of the attractiveness of succinct writing.

Kevin Jones

SafetyAtWorkBlog was provided with a review copy of The Coal Face.

5 thoughts on “OHS and public health at The Coal Face”

  1. Best book to read about the Hazelwood coal mine fire in Morewell that burned for over a month and affects the residents in the area to become very ill due to the toxins in the area.

  2. Hi Kevin,
    Thanks for posting this I will be reading this book with great interest, grew up in Morwell & did my Apprenticeship with the then owners of Hazelwood PS -SECV, worked in the open cut mines & Power Stations. Moved from there in 1979 due to some issues with the coal dust in my lungs but it was a great place to grow up & work, absolutely makes me angry reading the “I don’t give a shit’ attitude of the CDF Suez company towards the residents of the Latrobe Valley.Many of my family still live in the area and I wonder what health effects they may have in the coming years, we don’t need another James Hardie!!

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