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After the death of six workers in the past 12 months, Queensland’s mining industry is desperately searching for solutions to improve the safety of its worksites. By Dennis Atkins.

Queensland mining industry reckons with spate of deaths

Queensland Resources Council chief Ian Macfarlane speaks to the media about Jack Gerdes’s death.
Credit: Queensland Resources Council

Amanda Gerdes slept as her partner, Jack, died. She was home in Mount Perry, almost four hours’ drive from the Baralaba coalmine, when an inexplicable accident happened.

Miners’ spouses are often alerted by a buzzing on their mobile phones when their partner reaches the surface or is out of the pit. But if Amanda had the feature on her phone, it didn’t sound on Sunday morning. In Queensland, there is an increasing fear in mining communities. What if that buzzer doesn’t buzz? How long do you wait until you call the company?

Jack Gerdes, a 27-year-old with about a decade of mining experience, had driven his excavator to a ladder at the side of the pit. The ladder moves like an escalator. Somehow, Gerdes became tangled in the ladder. His body was found by a workmate. Gerdes’s death is the fourth mining death since the beginning of this year and the sixth in the past 12 months. It’s the worst tally in more than 20 years. Queensland mining is in a state of shock.

Leanne Drew knows the “safe” buzz. She waits for it and talks about it on her Beers with a Miner podcast. “I love that noise, because at least I know he’s out of the hole, he can message me,” she said after the death of Gerdes.

When Gerdes died, Drew’s partner was underground, although neither knew what was happening. Danger is a fact of life for many families in this hardscrabble and big rewards part of Queensland. They work hard when they can and they reap the gains when they can. They also take high risks. Now, however, everyone in the Sunshine State is asking if those risks are too high, if enough is being done to minimise them, and how we can get back to a death toll of zero, seen in the financial year before last.

This latest incident hit Drew hard. It came just 11 days after miner David Routledge was crushed to death when a wall fell on his excavator at a mine in Middlemount. She didn’t know if the accident had happened at her partner’s worksite – the company was very slow to get the news out, taking 12 hours to notify the local reps at the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU). “I just spent most of the day in front of the computer, to be honest,” said Drew. “I just started getting shaky, and lots of swearing, and lots of anger, lots of: ‘Are you freaking serious?’”

This 12 hours of dread in central Queensland – not in any way confined to Drew’s kitchen table – has led to a line being drawn and big changes looming on the horizon for workers, operators and the government. At the heart of these changes is this numbing fact: miners are dying in Queensland. Families are shattered and broken. The CFMEU has tears running down its hard exterior. The industry is at a loss. The Palaszczuk government is at a loss, too. The deputy premier, Jackie Trad, and mines minister Anthony Lynham knew they’d done a lot on safety but it clearly was not enough.

Two crisis meetings have been held in Brisbane this week. A quick “what the hell do we do” one on Monday and a longer, more meaningful, get-together on Wednesday. The anger erupted in the central Queensland mining communities and found expression in CFMEU officials, including district mining division president Steve Smyth.

An argument has blown up over the make-up of a safety committee, which had not met since March 20 nor convened in the three months prior. At issue is a disagreement over gender, with two women nominated by the bosses not being put on the committee because of objections from the union. Without a gender balance, the committee cannot meet. While some union figures said the failure of the committee to meet was contributing to the unsafe conditions faced by miners, Smyth knocked that on the head. It just wasn’t the case, he said.

The more serious division is between Smyth and Ian Macfarlane, the chief of the Queensland Resources Council (QRC) and former Howard government resources minister. Smyth says the increased presence of labour hire companies in the industry is contributing to a steep rise in job insecurity. Macfarlane counters this, saying the past two deaths were of full-time permanent workers, not those employed under a labour hire contract. However, there’s no doubt the pressure on workers is real. It comes up again and again in conversation with union officials and people in these communities.

Smyth says the increasing use of casual labour has contributed to a relaxation of safety standards. The jobs are insecure and so workers do not speak up. He says the companies “can turn them off and turn them on whenever they see fit. The workers are then isolated in the fact if they speak out it is ‘See ya later’ because they are employed by the hour.”

Wednesday’s meeting turned out to be more productive than some thought possible, probably because of the intense community pressure in central Queensland about the deaths. Minister Lynham has ordered a full inquiry into all six deaths, as well as all other mining fatalities going back to 2000, and has expanded an existing safety probe to cover not only underground operations but also open-cut mines. More dramatically, all sides came out of Wednesday’s meeting with a determination to do something.

As Lynham told The Saturday Paper, he was blown away when one of the mining executives came up to him at the meeting’s conclusion and took ownership of the problem. “He told me this wasn’t the government’s fault, it was a problem for the industry and they needed to fix it,” said Lynham. The minister says the bottom line is safety in mining works in cycles, with one death soon becoming two and then complacency setting in. That’s where Queensland is now.

What’s up next is a full safety reset of all mines across the state. A call for a 24-hour strike was set aside because too many workers would have fallen through the cracks in a multiple-shift, fly-in fly-out industry. Typically, each mine has four shifts going and these will not start until every worker is taken back to first principles on safety. The inductions and resets can last for up to an hour and are notoriously seen as “boring” by many workers. Still, workers will want to refresh their memory on what they know and what they’ve forgotten. In some cases the resets will take a quarter of a day, while operations on other sites could be out for a full day.

The employers are not keen to let this debate expand into one about labour hire and whether restrictions should be placed on these paid-by-the-hour operations. The unions are equally energised to do just that.

Next, everyone is going to reconvene on the Gold Coast in August, at the Queensland Mining Industry Health and Safety Conference. Top of the agenda at this gathering will be whether to expand new industrial manslaughter laws, introduced in October 2017, to cover mining. The state government buckled in the face of threats from the QRC to campaign fiercely if these laws were applied to the mining sector.

Now, with communities hurting, the QRC is considering agreeing. The unions are asking a very simple question: if the industrial manslaughter laws operate on building sites and in the trucking industry, why not in the obviously dangerous mining sector?

It’s a question plenty of people in Queensland want answered, too. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 13, 2019 as "Coal’s wake-up call". Subscribe here.

Dennis Atkins
is a freelance writer and commentator based in Brisbane and was a national political editor in Canberra for many years.