Coroner to investigate safety management of Beaconsfield mine

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A front page report in the The Australian on 9 July 2008 is reassuring safety professionals who had hoped for OHS management details from the Tasmanian Coroner’s inquest into the death of Larry Knight at the Beaconsfield mine.

According to the report

Coroner Rod Chandler yesterday ruled against the mine’s submission that he should simply adopt the findings of the official Melick report into the Anzac Day rock-fall in 2006 that killed Knight and trapped colleagues Brant Webb and Todd Russell underground for 14 days.

Mr Chandler also ruled against the mine’s fall-back position that any inquest should be limited to geo-technical issues.

Instead, he ruled he would also examine risk management at the mine, which was criticised by an expert’s report, the mine’s “financial situation” and the role of Tasmania’s work safety watchdog.

This puts the inquiry iinto the realms of the Sago mine investigation and many other mine fatality inquries.

The full inquest resumes on 22 July 2008.

Beaconsfield Mine Inquest

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An article in today’s Australian newspaper reports on the coroner’s inquest into the death of Larry Knight in the Beaconsfield mine in 2006. It provides the first insight into the OHS report for the Melick investigation.

In October 2005, six months before Larry Knight’s death, the mine was closed after a minor rockfall. It is reported that mine management only allowed workers back into the mine after geotechnical advice.

Professor Michael Quinlan of the University of New South Wales wrote that, from an OHS perspective, this was a poor decision. Whether financial pressures were behind the permission to reenter the mine is under dispute.

Counsel for the mining company, Stephen Russell has

urged the court to exclude Professor Quinlan’s evidence because the University of NSW professor was not expert in geotechnical issues.

Valid point, perhaps, except that the coroners need to investigate deaths from a broad pool of opinion and expertise. I suspect that Michael Quinlan would be the first to admit he is not an expert on geotechnical matters.

It seems from the media report that the counsel for the mine believes that, even though an assessment would involve worker activity in a workplace, occupational health and safety considerations were not necessary at the time.

In an earlier report in the Mercury newspaper, counsel assisting the Coroner, Michael O’Farrell

argued against an earlier move by the mine’s lawyers to confine the inquest to seismic event on the day of the rockfall.
Mr O’Farrell told Launceston’s Supreme Court that attempts to contain the inquiry to a close examination of the geotechnical issues surrounding the collapse did not serve justice, and may lead to error.
He urged Coroner Rod Chandler to consider all types of evidence, “even red herrings”, in order to make the recommendations necessary to prevent similar mine deaths.
The inquest should also focus the mine’s safety processes and risk assessment procedures, as well the capacity of the state government’s workplace standards body, Mr O’Farrell said.

I have stressed elsewhere that I have no problem with companies deciding to do nothing after a risk assessment is undertaken. It is the right of the employer to accept or reject OHS advice. But what I object to is if a company then tries to avoid responsibility for that decision if it turns out to be a poor one.

The mine’s senior counsel, David Neal SC, then asked the Coroner, Rod Chandler, to review the cost-benefit of a detailed investigation into Larry King’s death as the proceedings are costing each party $20,000 per day.

David Neal, also requested 28 witnesses identified by the opposing counsel be excluded. I don’t think that relatives of dead workers would see these costs as an impediment to determining the cause of a loved one’s death. I find it extraordinary that such a suggestion would be made at all.

Pipeline explosion may lead to invocation of emergency powers

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This post is receiving a lot of attention from around the world so, although, at the moment, the workplace safety issues have diminished, it is interesting to note that The Australian newspaper for 12 June 2008 reports that the Premier, Alan Carpenter, has acknowledged that he may need to invoke emergency powers to seize control of electricity and gas supplies.

This is an extraordinary development that indicates the infrastructure fragility of Western Australia.

The supply disruption is now also receiving federal government attention as it begins to affect Australia’s ability to supply China’s insatiable appetite for Australian minerals and energy.

Alcoa Australia is the latest company to announce a “force majeure” as a result of the Apache Energy pipeline explosion.

It is phenomenal to see how an event that in OHS terms is a “near miss” has the potential to weaken a country’s economic growth.

New seismology report on Crandall Canyon mine disaster

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I reported on the August 6 2007 Crandall Canyon mine disaster in my OHS publications last year as there seemed to be some similarities between that disaster, in which 6 workers and 3 rescuers died, and the events at Beaconsfield Mine in Tasmania of April 2006.  At the time seismological events were mentioned as a possible cause of the mine collapses.

According to an August 17 2007 AFP report in Safety At Work magazine:

“Controversy has swirled over the precise cause of the initial cave-in, with mine owner Robert Murray insisting it was the result of a powerful 3.9 magnitude earthquake. However, scientists at monitoring stations in Salt Lake City have suggested the seismic activity was caused by mining excavation.

The University of Utah Seismograph Station said the cave-in yesterday had been recorded as a 1.6 magnitude event at 6.39pm (1239 AEST). Spokesman Lee Siegel told the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper the nature of the seismic waves measured indicated it was a “mining-induced settling of the mountain”.

A seismological report dated May 2 2008 says that there are indications

“…that most of the seismic wave energy of this event was generated by the mine collapse rather than a naturally-occurring earthquake.”

A June 2 2008 TV report on KSL shows old footage of the mine owner, Bob Murray, denying that the seismic event was made by minework processes. There is now a mountain (or coalmine) of evidence to the contrary.

Of interest on this issue of mine safety are two general statements issued by the CEO of CONSOL Energy shortly after the mine collapse and later to the Utah Mine Safety Commission in January 2008.