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When will it be time for uniform mine safety laws?

In June, the quarry industry experienced two casualties in Queensland. A 21-year old quarry worker was killed when he became entangled in a conveyor belt and a 25-year old man died after trying to unblock a sand crusher. There is nothing to imply that their employers were at fault or could have averted these tragedies.

These accidents unfortunately coincided with a new round of debate about mine safety. The day after the first accident, Queensland?s Department of Natural Resources and Mines (DNRM) released a discussion paper, inviting members of the state?s resources sector to comment on whether Queensland should abide by the national Work Health and Safety Act 2011 while developing non-core drafting instructions for mining under the National Mine Safety Framework (NMSF), a process in which the IQA has participated for many years.

The paper raised the following three options and the DNRM expressed its preference for the first:

  1. Retain the Coal Mining Safety and Health Act 1999 and Mining and Quarrying Safety and Health Act 1999 (the Queensland Acts) for the coal and metalliferous sectors plus NMSF provisions that improve safety and consistency.
  2. Have a single Act for the resources sectors plus the NMSF provisions.
  3. Develop mine safety legislation based on the model Act plus the NMSF provisions.

What, another discussion paper? I?ve previously expressed my disappointment that the states and territories cannot agree on a uniform approach to OHS, particularly for mining and quarrying. As Kelly Oversby reports this month, non-core drafting instructions apply in Queensland, Western Australia and New South Wales while the other states and territories are guided by their own legislation, the model Act and/or yet to be approved core NMSF codes of practice for mine health and safety. The larger states were determined that there would not be a diminution of their mine safety laws through the harmonisation process. It?s hard to argue with that.

Yet considering this hybrid approach is intended to improve consistency across all jurisdictions for mine safety, I query its effectiveness. All I see is a bureaucratic mess, giving the states and the Commonwealth more excuses to ?pass the buck?.

To date, the Commonwealth, three states and both territories have passed legislation mirroring the model WHS Act, which is now in effect or will take effect by 1 January, 2013. Queensland and NSW have passed this legislation but are backpedalling and the legislation is in deadlock in South Australia.

Victoria and WA will not embrace the model Act ? and Victoria seems to be operating in even more of a vacuum as it is guided by its own mine health safety laws and (yet to be approved) draft NMSF codes of practice. Considering its resources sector may grow in coming years, particularly in the extraction and export of brown coal, it seems strange that Victoria would not have sought a uniform approach or adopted the non-core drafting instructions of the larger mining states.

The Victorian Government is clearly concerned about the expense of adopting a uniform OHS approach. What it forgets, though, is that OHS is not about cost impact but the human element – like the two young men I mentioned above.

It?s about ensuring your workers can go to work each day, perform their duties safely and then go home to their families. There will always be costs in shifting to new systems; the politics of Commonwealth-state relations should not subvert that intent.

If now isn?t the time, when will it be time for a uniform mine safety regime? The harmonised OHS model and NMSF have dragged out for years, despite the IQA and other parties? good work on the latter. The suggestion is a uniform mine safety regime could be another decade out. Shouldn?t the states and the Commonwealth work out their differences now? Mine safety is not a political football. All stakeholders ? the Commonwealth, the states and the extractive industry – should head back to the negotiating table.


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