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OPINION: Checkies give workers a strong voice on safety



Our Queensland coal industry has had a difficult few years, with a spate of tragic fatalities, injuries and near misses reminding us we can never stop being vigilant when it comes to worker safety.

For over a century our union has represented workers in the Queensland coalfields and safety has been our top priority. For most of that history, we have employed safety inspectors to give workers a strong voice in their own safety.

Workers who are new to the industry may not know about the important role played by our Industry Safety and Health Representatives (ISHRs), traditionally known as check inspectors or ‘checkies’.

The role of check inspectors emerged in the NSW Hunter Valley coalfields in the early 1870s. From the outset they were experienced miners elected through a ballot. They conducted detailed inspections of mines and identified serious hazards. By 1915 Queensland had formal statutory recognition of mine safety legislation, which progressively strengthened in response to disasters like Mount Mulligan in 1921.

The principle behind the role of worker-elected safety inspectors is that in a dangerous industry, workers must be able to take a proactive role in ensuring their own safety. In an industry where mining companies still put production before safety, workers need a safety advocate who they trust and who is not driven by production figures, profits or bonuses.

Today, Queensland’s Coal Mining Safety and Health Act sets out the functions of ISHRs, which include inspecting mines to assess risk levels; reviewing procedures to control risks; detecting unsafe practices and taking action to address them; participating in investigations into serious accidents and high potential incidents (HPIs) and investigating complaints from coal mine workers regarding safety or health.

ISHRs have the power to make inquiries about the operation of coal mines, enter any part of a coal mine, examine and copy relevant documents and importantly to issue a directive to suspend operations if risk levels are considered unacceptable.

Coal mine operators are legally obliged to inform ISHRs about accidents and high potential incidents.

The Act allows for up to three ISHRs in Queensland; who must be employed by the Mining and Energy Union as the principal union in the black coal industry and elected by a ballot of members for four-year terms.

Our current ISHRs are Jason Hill covering the central region, Stephen Woods covering the northern region and Stephen Watts in the southern region. They each conduct regular mine inspections, conduct investigations, and respond to worker concerns in their regions. They participate in health and safety committees co-ordinated by the government, conduct training for Site Safety and Health Representatives (SSHRs) and provide an access point to information and support for all coal miners.

Being a checkie is a tough job. I know, because I was an ISHR before becoming District President. It requires long hours away from home, standing up to hostile bosses, dropping everything when an accident occurs and attending scenes that can be very distressing. But it’s also immensely rewarding to play a role that is uncompromising in its focus on worker safety and has such a proud history of delivering improvements in mine safety over many decades.

I encourage all coal mineworkers to keep an eye out for ISHR visits to your site and raise any questions or issues that concern you. But also remember that the same Coal Mining Safety and Health Act that empowers our ISHRs also empowers all coal mineworkers to stop work if they believe safety risks are unacceptable. Each mineworker must do his or her part to understand risks at their mine site, follow safety procedures and speak up if they believe there is a risk. But mineworkers can also be reassured that they have somewhere to turn and someone to back them up on safety concerns. We are proud of our checkies and we will always fight to maintain their important role in our industry. 

Stephen Smyth

Mining and Energy Union Queensland District President

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