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OPINION: Mine Safety Must Remain our Top Priority

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We were deeply disappointed that for the second year running, COVID restrictions prevented us from holding our annual Memorial Day to honour lives lost in mining. The event is usually held on the second Sunday of September in front of the Jim Comerford Memorial Wall, which holds the names of the almost 1,800 men women and children who have lost their lives in the Northern District Coalfields.

It’s an incredibly moving event as we are joined by family members who have lost loved ones – some recently, some in generations past – lay wreaths and commit ourselves to remembering their loss and honouring their sacrifice. Each name reflects a personal tragedy and a bereaved family.

Coal mining is a dangerous industry. It is of course a great comfort and relief that these days, names are added to the wall at a far slower rate than in years gone past. Our industry is unquestionably safer. However, we can never afford to be complacent.

We heard shocking news from Queensland last month with the death of Graham Dawson in a roof collapse at Crinum underground coal mine. It was a heartbreaking reminder of the hostile environment mineworkers can face.

We commemorate mining deaths to bring comfort to families and workmates and honour our history – and importantly to reaffirm our commitment to making our industry safer. Reflection must lead to change. As a union, our greatest priority is to prevent more names being added to memorials like the Jim Comerford Wall.

Many of the major safety improvements in the coal mining industry have been fought for and achieved in the wake of tragedy. For example, the terrible underground explosion at Mount Kembla Colliery in 1902, which killed 96 workers, ushered in a wave of changes around the management of dangerous gases. 

It has been more than 100 years since Mt Kembla and we have seen many safety improvements including dust monitoring and management, safer machinery, improved PPE and a far greater focus on safe work practices and procedures.

One of the most important protections coal miners have at work is the network of union safety inspectors. At the District level, we have two Industry Safety and Health Representatives (ISHRs) or Check Inspectors. These are statutory roles – meaning they have powers enshrined by law – reflecting the recognition that workers need an independent voice when it comes to advocating for safety.

Check inspectors have been part of our industry for more than a century, since coal miners in the Hunter Valley lobbied for employee elected inspectors in the late 1800s.

Our current District Check Inspectors Tony Watson and Steve Tranter have the power to attend and inspect any part of a workplace at a mine, examine documents, assist with training, detect unsafe work practices and conditions and importantly – suspend operations in certain circumstances and issue provisional improvement notices (PINs). They do a tremendous job.

At the site level, we also have a network of Site Safety and Health Representative (SSHRs) or site check inspectors. These are mineworkers who are elected by their workmates to advocate for their safety on site, which means monitoring for hazards, reviewing procedures, encouraging safe practices and generally standing up for safety on site. This is detailed, important work and thank all of our site checkies for their tireless work, which prevents injuries and saves lives. 

Our message to all coal miners is that work health and safety is not just a specialist function, it’s everybody’s responsibility. We must all influence the work health and safety culture of our workplace. We must all share the ambition of not adding any more names to our Memorial Wall.

Safety cannot be taken for granted; it cannot be misunderstood, it must never be understated, and it must always be the highest and most important issue in all our workplaces.

Peter Jordan, CFMEU Northern Mining and NSW Energy District President

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