This week Queensland has seen some of its most significant mine safety reform in years.
- Industrial manslaughter legislation passed in Queensland Parliament this week, carrying a 20-year jail term
- An Inquiry will look into the Grosvenor Coal Mine blast and 40 other mine gas incidents
- The Board of Inquiry will be led by independent commissioners
Earlier this week Queensland Parliament passed industrial manslaughter legislation for the resources industry, a penalty which holds employers and senior safety officials to account for mining deaths.
It carries a penalty of 20 years’ imprisonment.
The state’s Mines Minister Anthony Lynham is also getting the ball rolling on a Board of Inquiry which will hold public hearings and deliver recommendations on the Grosvenor gas explosion.
The inquiry will also look into 40 other instances of unsafe gas levels in mines since mid-2019.
It comes as four experienced miners recover from extensive burns after a gas explosion at the underground mine near Moranbah, in central Queensland.
All four miners are now in a stable condition as a result of the Grosvenor Mine explosion a fortnight on.
With eight deaths in the resources industry since 2018, the mining union has welcomed the reform, but said it should have been brought in years ago.
Employers will ‘sit up and take notice’: union
Every other workplace in Queensland has faced industrial manslaughter legislation since 2017 and, until Wednesday, the resource industry was exempt.
“This provides these critical officers with confidence that they can raise and report safety issues without fear of reprisal or impact on their employment,” Lynham told Parliament this week.
Queensland’s mining and energy division of the CFMEU trade union has welcomed the new offence, and said previous prosecutions in lower courts have not been effective at improving mine safety.
Dr Lynham told Parliament this week that his department was in the process of prosecuting four of the eight fatalities which have occurred since 2018 in the Industrial Magistrate’s Courts.
In the past, convictions have led to individuals serving jail time and receiving fines in the hundreds of thousands, but Steve Smyth, state president of the mining and energy division of the CFMEU, said the legal avenues available prior to industrial manslaughter legislation were not a strong enough deterrent for mining companies.
“It’s mostly fines, and I’ve gotta be honest, that’s what’s a bit of a joke,” Mr Smyth said.
“[For] a lot of these companies the fine they’ve got isn’t even equivalent to one hour or two hours of production at an underground longwall mine.”
Mr Smyth praised the Queensland Government for pushing for industrial manslaughter to apply to the resources industry because, until now, the industry had been exempt.
“The thought of going to jail … would certainly make them sit up and take notice,” he said.
The Queensland Resources Council (QRC) represents mine and quarry companies and said safety remained its number one priority, but said in a statement:
“The QRC will work with the Minister and the Government to ensure there are no unintended consequences for mine safety from the Bill that may diminish mine safety and that, together, we can secure the fullest possible compliance with mine safety laws.”
The new legislation does not apply retrospectively.
So what is a Board of Inquiry?
Boards of Inquiry are different to Parliamentary Inquiries because they are headed by independent commissioners as opposed to Members of Parliament.
Boards of Inquiry are normally held when multiple deaths or injuries occur, such as the Grosvenor Mine explosion.
Retired District Court Judge Terry Martin SC, as chair, and Professor Andrew Hopkins AO from the Australian National University, an expert in coal mine health and safety, will be on the board.
It will conduct public hearings, call witnesses and make broad inquiries, findings and recommendations relating to the incident as well as 40 other gas-related incidents in Queensland mines which have happened since the middle of 2019.
The inquiry will hand down its findings in November.