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.

OHS lessons from investigations into the US poultry industry

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Earlier this year, the Charlotte Observer began researching avian influenza but ended up with an expose about occupational health and safety in the US poultry industry, called “The Cruelest Cuts”. A recent podcast, and vodcast (I recommend the vodcast), highlights many safety management issues that are relevant to other industries and other jurisdictions

  • Migrant labour
  • OHS regulation
  • Musculo-skeletal disorders
  • Reportable incidents
  • Inspectorate priorities
  • The Bush government approach to OHS
  • The Ergonomics Standard
  • Activity rather than safety results
  • Misusing Lost Time Injuries

The arguments generated by the Charlotte Observer’s articles continue. A recent article reports on the House Education and Labor Committee hearings and the issues summarised in the above vodcast.

Some of the issues raised may bring “Fast Food Nation” to mind but Eric Schlosser had a broader agenda in his book than in the Charlotte Observer reports.

The articles and the video remind us to question and to ask and to prod and probe when any government department report on OHS management is released. They also illustrate how easy it is to make a company look like it is safe.

In Australia at the moment there is debate about migrant workers and soem employers have recently been prosecuted on OHS matters related to these workers. In fact, today (2 July 2008 ) according to WorkSafe Victoria, a Victorian Magistrate will sentence Lakeside Packaging over OHS issues.

The case involves injuries to two Chinese guest workers on s 457 visas. One man was hurt on two occasions – both arms broken. Lakeside Packaging Pty Ltd pleaded guilty to 7 charges.

The incidents:

Guoping Cai (35) was hurt on 16 March 2006 at the company’s Dennis St, Campbellfield premises, when his arm was crushed in an unguarded printing machine as he cleared a paper blockage. Both bones in his right forearm were broken and he was in hospital for 2 weeks Plates and bolts were put in his arm and he required a skin graft.

Zhi Hong Fu (52) fell from a ladder which had been placed on top of a steel working platform on 5 April 2006 at the Rex Road, Campbellfield premises. He was doing electrical work for which he was not qualified. He broke his right wrist and suffered other injuries He returned to work four days later with his arm in plaster. On 30 June, with his dominant right arm now in a brace, he suffered a second injury while using a drill with his left arm and steadying it with his chin. The drill kicked and his other (left) arm was broken. The company pleaded guilty to 5 charges in relation to these incidents.

Australia does not have a Mexico on its border, and the governments have heavily regulated the migrant intake but, as the court action has shown, the safety management approaches of some employers are the same the world over.

Australia military and safety culture

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Australia is accumulating a considerable body of knowledge about safety cultures in workplaces.  Sadly most of the information comes from inquiries into disasters that involve multiple fatalities.  The UK has its body of knowledge from oil-rig explosions and train crashes.  Australia’s is predominantly from mining disasters, gas plant explosions and, also, train crashes.

Now according to the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian Defence Force also has a deficient safety culture.  In some ways this is of greater concern than such criticisms of private sector disasters as one would expect the military to have greater control over issues such as equipment maintenance, and staff conduct due to its regimented command structure.

ABC’s AM program reported that the board of inquiry findings into the crash of a BlackHawk helicopter on the deck of a navy ship in 2006, identifies

“.. a culture of risk taking and sloppy safety standards in the army’s elite helicopter squadron.”

According to media reports

“The inquiry’s final report found senior pilots in the Sydney-based 171 Squadron had a culture of aggressive flying, safety procedures were slack and the reporting of incidents involving engine failures and other safety breaches was haphazard,..”

A video report on the board of inquiry which includes film of the crash is available online.