June 24, 2021
The Queensland Coal Mining Board of Inquiry released its final report this month, finding that workers at Anglo American’s Grosvenor mine were exposed to unacceptable levels risk before last year’s shocking explosion.
The report also reveals the full extent to which permanent jobs have been outsourced across the industry and explores the dangers when workers feel scared to raise safety issues.
The report details the failure of Anglo’s management team to manage dangerous gases at Grosvenor in the months leading up to last May’s blast, which left five workers with life-threatening burns. It found that coal production was not slowed to match gas drainage capacity at the mine and that ‘coal mine workers were repeatedly subject to an unacceptable level of risk’.
There were 27 gas-related High Potential Incidents (HPIs) that occurred between July 1, 2019 and May 5, 2020 at Grosvenor mine. The explosion occurred on May 6.
The report was also scathing of the Queensland’s Mines Inspectorate’s failure to respond to the frequency of HPIs and identify Grosvenor as a ‘problem mine that was deserving of particular and greater attention’.
“I felt sick reading the detail about Anglo’s recklessness,” said Queensland District President Stephen Smyth.
“Management knew there were problems following a series of high potential incidents but didn’t address. The Inspectorate should also hang its head in shame.
“Last year’s explosion was a shocking and traumatic event and it makes my blood run cold to think that the outcome could have been much worse.”
The Inquiry exposed the extensive use of casual labour hire in Queensland’s coal mining industry, showing a dramatic change in the workforce over the past 25 years.
In 1996, 94% of Queensland’s open cut coal workforce was directly employed. By 2002, this had fallen to 65%, in response to Howard-era IR changes that removed restrictions on contracting out jobs.
Data from 2017 from the Commissioner for Mine Safety and Health confirm what is obvious on the ground, that is that permanent employees are now a minority of the coal mining workforce. Direct employees are now just 45% of the open cut workforce and 48% of the underground workforce. At some mines, like Grosvenor, the entire production workforce is contracted out.
The Inquiry canvased research on the impact of labour hire, noting that:
“Going back as far as the 1980s, there is a considerable body of research into the safety and health implications of temporary and insecure work arrangements, including labour hire arrangements. There is a high degree of consistency in the findings that those implications are overwhelmingly negative. The research shows that, generally speaking, temporary and insecure work arrangements are associated with a higher incidence of injuries and fatalities, as well as poorer physical and mental health. Workers employed in such arrangements generally have a poorer knowledge of, and poorer access to, regulatory employment rights, and are less willing to raise occupational health and safety concerns.”
The union is advocating for a further inquiry focused on the specific safety implications of the widespread casualisation of the Queensland mining industry.
“It’s not good enough for mine operators to just assert that casualisation is fine and dandy,” said Stephen Smyth. “It’s certainly not the view of workers on the ground that removing rights and job security is conducive to a good safety culture. There is more work to be done to tackle this toxic business model.”