Safety panel explores deep-rooted problems

A SAFETY panel discussion at Asia-Pacific’s International Mining Exhibition has flagged communication and culture as major safety shortcomings in the industry.
Safety panel explores deep-rooted problems Safety panel explores deep-rooted problems Safety panel explores deep-rooted problems Safety panel explores deep-rooted problems Safety panel explores deep-rooted problems

The interactive presentation at the Sydney Showgrounds convened on Friday with Beaconsfield mine disaster survivor Brant Webb and mining accident amputee Dean McSporran.

Evolution Mining's HSE and risk general manager Simon Delander was also on hand. David Nicols spoke as senior inspector and area manager of New South Wales Trade and Investment Mine Safety Operations.

Mining Family Matters' Lainie Anderson functioned as panel facilitator.

The often-heated forum included impassioned questions from audience members, some palpable frustration and served to demonstrate the sensitive and emotional nature of safety as an issue to anyone directly touched by the mining industry.

The proceedings opened with introductions of Webb as survivor of a two-week entrapment underground, and McSporran, who lost his arm practising a routine procedure with roof mesh.

"A common saying in the mining industry is that procedures are written in blood," McSporran said.

"It takes someone to be injured or killed before things get changed."

Exchanges focused largely on communications breakdowns between miners and management, and a sense that responsiveness to required safety alerts was often insufficient.

"When you go past time and time again and you don't see [requested safety upgrades] done, and then management turn around and they just bought a new bloody helicopter to have a look at some dams, you're thinking, hang on a second, what the hell's going on here," Webb said.

"They don't give a toss about us down here. They go and get a helicopter to look at a dam - they can drive there for Christ's sake."

Nicols noted that culturally, the handling of safety protocols could be influenced largely by the economic standing of a given mine or company.

"In some circumstances it is the costs," he said.

"You'll get a mine that's in financial trouble, undercapitalised when the start up, for example. You get messages occurring and things coming down the line saying, we'll give you extra capital once you start to improve your performance.

"Straight away you're getting systems distress … and then that starts to lead to odd behaviour."

The policy of distributing bonuses was also singled out as having a negative effect on safety by offering incentives to personnel to engage in activities they were unqualified for.

Bonuses were also flagged as sometimes compelling workers to hide injuries or safety failings in order to help secure a safety-related bonus for the entire staff.

McSporran, however, highlighted the complexity of the issue by noting the entrenchment and necessity of bonuses for many in the industry.

"If you actually look at a coal miner's payslip, if you take away the bonus, a coal miner is just a glorified labourer," he said.

"They can get just $25-30 an hour. You take away that bonus to work in the dangerous environment that we work in, and you wouldn't get many people down there."

Solutions were hard to define as the discussion continued, with panellists and audience members agreeing that even relying on safety mentorship from experienced miners could have a negative effect through the passing on of bad habits.

"I see it a lot when I go around to mine sites and talk," McSporran said.

"I can tell all the old guys are rolling their eyes, saying ‘why do we have to listen to this. I've been here for 30 years. Nothing's ever happened to me,'" he said.

"The hardest people to get through to are the elderly people and the younger people. They think they're all bulletproof and ‘nothing's ever going to happen to me.' I used to probably say the same.

"Bang, I went to work," he gestured with his amputated arm, "and this all of a sudden happened to me."

First published in on Friday.

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