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Mines Work Health and Safety (Supplementary Requirements) Amendment Bill 2019

Cassy O'Connor MP  -  Thursday, 17 September 2020

Tags: WorkSafe, Mining, Legislation

Ms O'CONNOR (Clark - Leader of the Greens) - Madam Deputy Speaker, the Greens will be supporting the Mines Work Health and Safety (Supplementary Requirements) Amendment Bill. I will make a few comments on the way through. I cannot see a need to go into Committee.

As I said earlier this week, a couple of weekends ago I took the kids to Queenstown and we stayed in beautiful historic Penghana, which is the home of the original and subsequent 10 mine managers of the Mt Lyell mine. Robert Sticht was an American metallurgist who developed the first successful purely pyritic smelting in the world here in Tasmania. When I was talking to the managers of the Penghana accommodation, they made the point that out of Queenstown in those early days of Tasmania's post-European history, there was an economic powerhouse that did almost more than any other industry to lay the foundations for Tasmania's future economy.

When you look at the pictures of the Mt Lyell copper mine in the days when Penghana was first built around 1898, it was this magnificent homestead sitting on top of a pile of gravel. It certainly looks very different now; it is very green. I was thinking when I was looking at the pictures on the walls of the former mine manager's home how difficult and dangerous it must have been for those early mine workers who were laying the foundations for Tasmania's economy. There would have been no workplace health and safety laws in place back then. It would all have been down to the mine manager and the site managers to try to keep, particularly men in this instance, safe.

We have come a long way to where we are debating a stronger workplace health and safety framework for the operation of mines and people who work in mines, but working in a mine is very dangerous work and requires the strongest possible workplace health and safety laws, which is why we will be supporting this bill.

The amendment bill is the result of a Mine Safety Steering Committee review. The committee was comprised of representatives from the industry, unions and governments and was established in 2014 for the purposes of this review and followed tragic mine accidents at the Beaconsfield, Renison and Cornwall mines between 2000 and 2006.

The committee was established as part of a 2014 audit into mine safety. At that time it was recommended that there be ongoing audits to ensure that we keep miners safe and do not have repeats of the fatalities we have seen in Tasmanian mines, particularly in this century so far. In 2014 the then government made a media statement announcing the Mine Safety Steering Committee and claiming:

This week's Budget will include additional funding for the Office of the Chief Inspectorate of Mines, increasing inspectorate numbers from five to six, as recommended.

However, a 2016 audit of the Office of the Chief Inspectorate of Mines showed that their budget actually decreased in 2010 from a little over $1 million in 2013-14 to $952 000 in 2014 15, a $50 000 cut. It did subsequently increase modestly to $1.2 million in 2015-16. The current funding for this particular year is not in the audit report.

Staffing increased at the Office of the Chief Inspector of Mines post the 2014 statement from the then-treasurer. However, the report shows quite clearly that this was achieved by reducing non-salary costs such as training and professional development. The report also notes that 1.5 FTEs are assigned to Tasmania's major hazard facilities, noting that effectively there are only five inspectors working full time on regulating mining and quarrying industries. I ask the minister, what is the current budget allocation to the Office of the Chief Inspector of Mines and the number of staff currently assigned full time to regulating the mining and quarrying industries?

I also hope the minister will be able to go to some of the recommendations of the Quinlan audit and detail to the House what recommendations have been adopted. Have they all been adopted? Perhaps the minister could give an update to the House on the process of implementing those recommendations. I acknowledge many of the recommendations are captured within the legislation that we are debating today.

I recognise that this amendment bill ensures the person designated as the Chief Inspector of Mines has the right knowledge, experience and skills for the role, ensures mine inspectors have the knowledge, skills and experience to enable the effective exercise of the functions and the powers of mine inspectors, clarifies the definition of a mine - which as Ms O'Byrne said, is quiet handy - by specifying that it includes fixtures, fittings, plant or structures at the place that are used for or in connection with mining operations, and addresses potential ambiguity by clarifying that mining operations include activities from the beginning of the work on site, including preparatory work.

I will pause at this moment to raise the issue of the Venture Mine in the Tarkine and the evidence presented by the Bob Brown Foundation which sent a drone up over the mine site last week and, as we understand it, all the plant and equipment has been removed from the proposed Venture Mine site. I understand that the Minister for Resources plans to contribute towards this bill and perhaps he can explain to the House why Venture - having made so much noise about restarting mining - has removed all its plant and equipment from the Venture Mine site.

This amendment bill restricts the existing administrative power of the regulator to declare an activity, either at a particular place or generally, to be a mining operation, to only those activities that are specified. It allows an activity generally to be included in the definition of mining operations only by way of regulations. It provides an administrative power to the regulator to declare that an activity at a particular place is not a mining operation. It allows an activity generally to be excluded from the meaning of mining operations through the making of regulations.

It clarifies that Part 6 of the Workplace Health and Safety Act which makes it unlawful to discriminate against a worker or prospective worker for an unlawful reason, provides protection against discrimination for senior site officers; it improves the provisions for health and safety management systems; it improves consultation on codes of practice; and it makes other miscellaneous improvements, most of which are clarifications, corrections or amendments for the purposes of ensuring consistency throughout the act.

We are concerned about the necessary extra inspectorate work that will be required as a result of these amendments and the strengthening of those workplace health and safety requirements at the same time, when there does seem to be issues with WorkSafe Tasmania's capacity to investigate alleged breaches of workplace health and safety laws and alleged workplace risks to staff.

The statistics that we have demonstrate that the regulator, as it stands, is not up to scratch. Almost half of Tasmania's workplace fatalities did not result in a workplace investigation. This data was confirmed with us by our Right to Information request lodged by Dr Rosalie Woodruff's office. The statistics show WorkSafe conducted formal investigations into 21 of 38 workplace fatalities, 64 investigations into 858 cases of serious injury, and 28 investigations into 1642 reports of dangerous incidents.

Ms Archer - They attend every fatality where they are the main regulator. They do.

Ms O'CONNOR - Minister, I am simply detailing the information that was provided in the Right to Information request.

The numbers are damning. The government workplace safety body failed to investigate or even visit the workplace in the majority of reports of safety incidents or hazards. The figures provided in response to our request indicate there were 2568 notifiable incidents recorded between 2014 and May of this year. WorkSafe attended a workplace on only 807 occasions as a result, and conducted 115 formal investigations.

What we know from this Right to Information is that 64 per cent of all notifiable incidents recorded by WorkSafe since 2014 did not result in an investigation. We have a quote from a spokesperson for the minister, which does seem to be a handwashing exercise and that statement, in response to these number is that -

Workplace safety is first and foremost the responsibility of businesses and undertakings, and the people who work in them. They have the primary responsibility to investigate and remediate the causes of serious incidents.

Self-regulation has been demonstrated time and again not to work. We need to make sure that WorkSafe Tasmania is appropriately funded to conduct its statutory responsibilities and this is literally a matter of life and death. It is vital that we strengthen the workplace health and safety standards on mine sites or exploration sites in Tasmania, but it is equally vital that we make sure WorkSafe Tasmania is adequately funded to undertake its statutory responsibilities.

I do not have any more specific comments in relation to this amendment bill. It is worth placing on the record the objects of the Mines Work Health and Safety (Supplementary Requirements) Act of 2012 which states -


The object of this Act is to assist in securing the health and safety of mine workers and other people exposed to risks to their health or safety arising from mining operations, through the implementation of health and safety measures, specific to mines and mining operations, that are in addition to the measures imposed under the Work Health and Safety Act 2012.

There are many days when the families of people who work in our mines really worry about their loved ones going off to work. Everything that this parliament can do to ease that worry and to make sure that mine workers are safe in their workplace, must be done.

We live in a state which has at its foundation a mining industry which in significant part - despite some of the shrill language you will hear from the Minister for Resources - the Greens strongly support. We do not want to see mining operations in wilderness areas and we believe there must be areas that are off limits to mining, apart from those areas which are formally protected. I know that responsible mining companies can undertake their work and undertake remediation in such a way that restores the landscape to a very significant extent.

As a child, for a short time I was a miner's daughter. My father worked in the sand mines on Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island). I always remember him heading off to work, and this was a former journalist, in his yellow safety jacket with his little lunch box that Mum used to send him to work with. As a child I always thought he would come home. But there are many families, too many families, in the history of this island who have said goodbye to someone they love who has not come home. That is why, as I said earlier, we must support the strengthening of workplace health and safety standards in our mines.