July 27, 2023
Workers who are new to the coal mining industry may not know about the important role played by our Industry Safety and Health Representatives (ISHRs), traditionally known as check inspectors or ‘checkies’.
The role of check inspectors emerged in the NSW Hunter Valley coalfields in the early 1870s. From the outset they were experienced miners elected through a ballot. They conducted detailed inspections of mines and identified serious hazards. By 1915 Queensland had formal statutory recognition of mine safety legislation, which progressively strengthened in response to disasters like Mount Mulligan in 1921.
The principle behind the role of worker-elected safety inspectors is that in a dangerous industry, workers must be able to take a proactive role in ensuring their own safety. In an industry where mining companies still put production before safety, workers need a safety advocate who they trust and who is not driven by production figures, profits or bonuses.
Today, the functions of ISHRs are set out in state legislation in NSW and Queensland. They include inspecting mines to assess risk levels; reviewing procedures to control risks; detecting unsafe practices and taking action to address them; participating in investigations into serious accidents and high potential incidents (HPIs) and investigating complaints from coal mine workers regarding safety or health.
ISHRs have the power to make enquiries about the operation of coal mines, enter any part of a coal mine, examine and copy relevant documents and importantly to issue a directive to suspend operations if risk levels are considered unacceptable.
Coal mine operators are legally obliged to inform ISHRs about accidents and high potential incidents.
Legislation stipulates that ISHRs must be employed by the Mining and Energy Union as the principal union in the black coal industry and elected by a ballot of members for four-year terms.
We have three ISHRs in Queensland and two each in our NSW Northern and South-Western Districts. They each conduct regular mine inspections, conduct investigations, and respond to worker concerns in their regions. They participate in health and safety committees co-ordinated by the government, conduct training for Site Safety and Health Representatives (SSHRs) and provide an access point to information and support for all coal miners.
Being a checkie is a tough job. I know, because I was an ISHR before becoming District President. It requires long hours away from home, standing up to hostile bosses, dropping everything when an accident occurs and attending scenes that can be very distressing. But it’s also immensely rewarding to play a role that is uncompromising in its focus on worker safety and has such a proud history of delivering improvements in mine safety over many decades.
I encourage all coal mineworkers to keep an eye out for ISHR visits to your site and raise any questions or issues that concern you. But also remember that the same coal mining safety legislation that empowers our ISHRs also empowers all coal mineworkers to stop work if they believe safety risks are unacceptable.
Each mineworker must do his or her part to understand risks at their mine site, follow safety procedures and speak up if they believe there is a risk. But mineworkers can also be reassured that they have somewhere to turn and someone to back them up on safety concerns.
We are proud of our checkies and will always fight to maintain their important role in our industry, making sure that workers’ safety doesn’t come second to production pressures.