Exclusive Interview with Dr Tom Doig

SafetyAtWorkBlog had the chance to put some questions to Dr Tom Doig in early 2019 prior to the book’s release. Below is that exclusive interview.

SAWB: “Hazelwood” is predominantly a book that describes the social and environmental impacts of the Hazelwood. What, if any, overlap did workplace health and safety (WHS) and WorkSafe Victoria have in the fire’s aftermath?

TD: In the aftermath of the mine fire, a number of WHS issues have come to the fore. Firstly, in the 2014 Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry, a number of criticisms were made of Hazelwood’s regulatory framework, with a suggestion that there was a ‘regulatory gap’, as expressed by Mr Leonard Neist, Executive Director of the Health and Safety Unit at the Victorian Workcover Authority (VWA), at that time:

‘If I identify that gap as, who is responsible for regulating for the protection of public safety, regardless of what the source of the hazard or the risk is, who’s responsible for public safety, that’s where the gap probably is and I can’t—if you were to ask me right now, I can’t tell you who is responsible for regulating public safety. I’m responsible for regulating workplace safety and responsible for public safety as a result of the conduct of that undertaking, but I couldn’t tell you who is directly responsible.’

In this case, while VWA focuses on the health and safety of mine employees, they aren’t explicitly concerned with the health and safety of the general public, if a hazard – like a 45-day plume of toxic smoke – is dispersed beyond a specific workplace.

This raises a more general question about Engie Group’s responsibility to not injure or kill members of the general public, either as a result of a hazard event (such as the 2014 Hazelwood mine fire) or as part of routine operations, estimated to kill 18 people per year due to ambient pollution.

WorkSafe Victoria is currently pressing charges against Engie Group; the court case continues.

Also, significantly, David Briggs’ civil court case against Engie Group – which has been brought forward, due to his ill-health and the possibility of his early death – is likely to address breaches of WHS standards, as outlined in the ‘Health Management and Decontamination Plan – Latrobe Valley Mine Fires’, drafted by the Fire Services Commission Victoria on 15 February 2014 but (allegedly) not implemented by Engie Group or their subcontractor, RTL:

Also – and this is a big issue, as detailed in my book – WorkSafe Victoria really stepped up their efforts to regulate the safety conditions inside Hazelwood Power Station after the mine fire. This led to the ‘discovery’ of all manner of pre-existing health and safety threats (some of them years old, and arguably that should have been identified years earlier). Either way, WorkSafe Victoria issued PIN notices totalling half a billion dollars, some of which with deadlines of 1 April 2017. And Hazelwood’s owners closed the power station down … the day before this deadline.

So you could make a strong argument that, while many factors led to the eventual closure of Hazelwood, it was the PIN notices that forced the issue – but also that it was the mine fire that led to the PIN notices being issued in the first place.

SAWB: Are you aware of any WHS interest in the mine prior to the major coal mine fire?

Prior to the mine fire, the main concern in the Latrobe Valley was not with fire risk, but with ground instability. There was some concern, in particular, about the instability of the northern batters, right next to the Princes Freeway and the southern edge of Morwell, both from engineering experts such as Tim Sullivan, who wrote in 2015:

From almost the commencement of mining in Morwell Mine there were substantial movements around the open cut. In 1966/67 a sudden movement was detected along what was termed a vertical discontinuity. This discontinuity was traced from the coal seam on the northern batter into Morwell Township, …….
I cannot be explicit about likely impacts. However I can advise that the impacts could cover the full spectrum from simple fine cracking of roads, pavements buildings to the impacts similar to those observed with the recent stability incidents including, but not limited to:
• Major instability, with cracking and dislocation of structures leading to either evacuation until the area is stabilized, or ongoing fear and adverse emotional impacts on the populace; or
• Vertical steps and or wide open cracks of structures and across roads and pavements; or
• Sinkhole development at a range of scales; or
• Cracking and breakage of pipes.

Meanwhile, one local living on Wallace Street (the street closest to Hazelwood mine and the northern batters) was concerned about drainage issues in his backyard.
This resident was so concerned that he commissioned an independent report from engineer Peter Yttrup, who expressed concerns with the design of the Princes Freeway and its effect on water drainage.

However, in terms of concerns about a catastrophic fire – no one seems to have seen it coming, or to have seen it as a risk. People who worked inside the mine either didn’t think about it, or backed themselves to contain the blaze; and people outside the mine, including fire fighting staff and Morwell residents, just didn’t know enough about the conditions in the mine to even know there was a threat. It was, to quote Donald Rumsfeld’s famous summation of risk theory, ‘an unknown unknown’.

SAWB: Are you aware of any WHS policies and procedures of the mine’s owner that may have prevented some of the workers’ negative health impacts from the fire?

TD: Yes, the ‘Health Management and Decontamination Plan – Latrobe Valley Mine Fires’. This plan had many health and safety measures written into it, such as the use of protective face masks and oxygen tanks

If these measures had been followed,

a) Workers such as David Briggs would be less likely to have become ill

b) The fire would have taken much longer to extinguish, exposing the townspeople to further risk

This suggests (at least) two points:

  • Workers should have been protected properly
  • If this meant the fire took longer to extinguish, Morwell should have been (partially or fully) evacuated – which potentially should have happened anyway.

SAWB: There were many Valley residents who appear to have sacrificed their health to help fight the fire in the mine. Should they have become involved or have left the firefighting to the experts?

TD: Even the experts struggled to comprehend how to best extinguish the blaze. In the case of historically unprecedented events – which the Hazelwood fire was, to some extent – there are very few ‘experts’ to turn to. Do you rely on coal-mine fire ‘experts’, who had never fought a blaze of this scale? Do you rely on MFB experts, who aren’t familiar with coal fires? And so on.

Basically, fire fighters would need to be trained in earthworking methods, and/or, earthworkers would need to be trained in fire fighting methods, including HAZMAT issues. But the authorities/the corporation actually providing the suggested protective breathing equipment to employees, is the number one thing that would have made a positive difference.

As it happened, US fire fighter Mark Cummins offered advice on using foam to extinguish the blaze:

On 16 February 2014, the State Controller engaged an independent Expert Reference Group to peer review the suppression strategies being used in the mine fire. Membership of the Expert Reference Group comprised Australian and international experts, including Commissioner Greg Mullins AFSM, head of New South Wales Fire and Rescue, Adjunct Professor Tim Sullivan, expert in mining geotechnics, Mr Wayne Hartley, CEO of Queensland Mines Rescue Service, and Mr Mark Cummins, a US practitioner experienced in compressed air foam as an extinguishing agent in mine fires.
The Expert Reference Group met on 18 February 2014 and 3 March 2014. As part of the decision-making process relevant to suppression and extinguishment activities, the Reference Group identified the following operational actions:
• the possible use of foams and sprinklers instead of streams of water to continue to reduce smoke and products of combustion (eg ash and embers)
• focusing on areas in the mine where critical assets are located to ensure they are protected, and having redundancy plans in place if those assets are compromised
• continuing the use of water to suppress the fire, and trialling other mediums including foams and gels
• monitoring the volumes of water used and extracted, and the impact of those volumes on the mine, and managing the ongoing extension to the reticulation system
• employing an ‘aggressive focused weight of attack strategy’ by using multiple approaches, fighting fire in incremental sections, and focusing on priority areas
• monitoring and analysing critical aspects of the mine fire, including movement of the batters, the depth of the fire, water use, air quality and particulate matter
• active monitoring using infra-red technology in areas previously treated to ensure fire was extinguished
• monitoring safety issues for firefighters, including carbon monoxide exposure and water quality.

SAWB: In some sectors, Environment Health and Safety (EHS) management and WHS management have operated in organisational silos. Do you see this persisting or has the demarcation eroded?

TD: As mentioned above, the Hazelwood mine fire is a paradigmatic case of how ‘siloing’ of organisations led to a regulatory gap – between EHS, public health and WHS. I haven’t been looking at these issues long enough to comment on whether it is changing over time, for better or worse.

I get the sense that the Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry drew attention to one example of this issue – but there certainly wasn’t much media outcry or public outrage over this, compared to all the other, simpler and more tangible issues being discussed.

Clearly it’s an ongoing issue – and something like climate change is a limit case of the EHS/WHS divide. Climate change shows how removed the coming global environmental catastrophe is from regulations governing WHS management on a daily basis. If we took EHS more seriously – and could enforce it – most workplace carbon emissions would be banned. But that’s not about to happen.

SAWB: Should EHS and WHS be blended into one discipline considering the commonality in purpose?

TD: Perhaps? Clearly environmental health and safety is important, now more than ever. And clearly WHS should have significant EHS dimensions to it.

But I’m sure this would be hard to organise and manage. There’d be a danger, perhaps, that if EHS and WHS were combined, WHS priorities would dominate/override environmental concerns. See, for example, the Liberal-National Government’s egregious Department of the Environment and Energy – what a horrible result for the environment! If EHS could hold a dominant position, and WHS was subordinated to EHS concerns, it might work. But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

SAWB: In some ways, the Hazelwood mine fire has been seen as a result of privatisation of government-owned assets which is a consequence of neoliberalism. Is the solution to avoiding industrial incidents in the future, the re-nationalisation of industry, as some have suggested, or is there another way, more in keeping with how environmental management is developing this century?

TD: Re-nationalisation of industry sounds like a decent idea, albeit a nostalgic and old-fashioned one. Since proper WHS (and EHS) regulations usually cost a lot of money, and since corporations are hell-bent on maximising profits, re-nationalisation has the potential to resolve the problem. But since most government State-Owned-Enterprises have to run ‘efficiently’ too, the problem won’t go away.

The other option seems to be financial/regulatory: much higher taxes, much higher insurance premiums, much higher bonds, much higher penalties and fines. If companies were forced to pay forfeitable bonds for potential future disasters, in advance, they’d hopefully be much more likely to make sure things were safe.

This is where we need a new ‘green’ economics that properly account for ‘externalities’ like poisoning the atmosphere, poisoning lakes and rivers, etc.
But all of this sounds like communist talk – ‘it’s not how the free market works’. All the corporations would move offshore, etc.

SAWB: On page 52 of the manuscript you sent to me, you wrote:

“An anonymous source confirmed that Hazelwood’s CFMEU members who were working that weekend had a meeting and agreed not to make a submission or talk to the media about pre-existing fires. They were concerned that this information would potentially get the mine permanently shut down over workplace health and safety violations, and they would have no jobs to go to.”

This quote illustrates a common conflict in some sectors of the trade union movement – jobs before safety and jobs before the environment. These echo the common accusations against corporations of profits before safety and profits before the environment. There seems to be an underlying morality of self before others. Can this self-serving and short-term perspective be changed, and how?

TD: Ah, if I knew the answer to that, I’d be making a killing on the corporate speaking circuit! But I don’t. Clearly it’s an issue, and clearly the problem runs deep.

With Hazelwood employees, part of the problem is not just jobs before safety, but incredibly lucrative jobs before safety, and incredibly lucrative jobs before less lucrative jobs. Those mine workers had starting wages of $120K – lots of workers were on $180K, $240K. They were some of the highest-paid industrial workers in the history of human civilisation. So, it’s not just that if they lost their Hazelwood jobs, they’d be unemployable; it’s that they had no interest in taking a $150,000 pay cut, from $200K to $50K.

Perhaps if we had a better taxation system, that taxed the extremely rich (which all Hazelwood workers were) at higher rates, they would’ve been more willing to speak out, and move to other, safer jobs.

The problem of profits before safety and profits before the environment is fundamental to our era, also. As I did my research in the Latrobe Valley, talking to dozens of people from all across the community, one thing that startled me (at first) was that everyone took it for granted that corporations like Engie Group were out to make as much money as possible, and consequences be damned. Everyone accepted this! It’s normal – it’s natural – that corporations will fuck over their employees, will fuck over local communities, will destroy the surrounding land and water and poison the air above us … because that’s what they do. That’s just how it is. Corporations have a responsibility to their shareholders, I was told over and over again, to make as much money as possible – so it’s not surprising that they make a mess, is it?

And don’t forget that shareholders are people, too!

Suggesting that this needs to fundamentally change is like suggesting that gravity needs to fundamentally change. It’s not even communist talk – it’s the sort of thing an alien would say.

Corporate capitalism has embedded its logic so deep in our culture that meaningful alternatives to it are literally unthinkable. The best we can manage (I’m including myself here) is capitalism with more regulation. Beyond this, there is a no-man’s-land of ideas that no politician would ever utter in public.

The amount of stink that politicians and the (Murdoch) press can generate about so-called ‘green tape’ is a case in point. People being encouraged to think of multinational corporations with billion-dollar budgets as if they’re small business owners; a tradie with a ute, a corner store owner. Corporations who can’t afford to pay tax or they’ll go bankrupt (or fuck off overseas). Corporations who can’t afford to invest in proper health and safety regulations for the same reasons. Poor corporations, struggling to get by in this hard, hard world, just looking after themselves like anyone else would …

It’s total bullshit, but it’s simple and effective bullshit. And we’ve been hearing it for so long, it sounds just like ‘common sense’.

Kevin Jones

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