In this issue we speak with General Secretary of Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) – Mining and Energy Division, Andrew Vickers, about the National Mine Safety Framework (NMSF).
What is the CFMEU’s view on the proposed NMSF draft legislation as it currently stands?
We still have some concerns about it; although there have been unquestionably some dramatic improvements from our perspective in the last short period of time. We’re continuing to work both with the National Mine Safety Framework Steering Group and Safe Work Australia to ensure that we are completely comfortable with the end result. I think we’re actually getting there now. I’m far more comfortable than what I was when I hung up and refused to further participate on a phone conference in about February or March, for example, when it was just outrageous what was coming back.
What specific improvements were addressed?
There has been recognition, and it’s taken quite some time, that the physical environment and the nature of work, particularly in underground coal mines, can’t be simply and easily regulated by broad-brush regulations and/or codes of practices. And irrespective of the ideological position of some of the people within Safe Work Australia or the people in the SIG-OHS (Strategic Issues Group on Occupational Health and Safety) about prescriptive legislation being an anathema to them, the facts of the matter are that without prescriptive legislation we would be murdering people in underground coal mines, and we’re simply not going to accept that. There has been this belated but actual recognition that in terms of OHS regulation for particularly underground coal mines, but the mining industry more generally – we have learnt a lot from the terrible tragedies of the past – and current OHS legislation particularly in the major mining states of Queensland and NSW and a slightly lesser extent Western Australia where they’re still learning in all honesty, the improvements that have been made in OHS legislation have led to quite dramatic improvements in OHS outcomes. None of that can be allowed to go backwards by going back to a time where the legislation was simply inadequate and didn’t stop things like the Atherton, Moura and Kianga disasters.
When do you expect the NMSF to be enacted nationally?
I am absolutely confident it won’t be before 1 July 2012. I am aware that Former Minister [for Tertiary Education, Skills, Jobs and Workplace Relations] Chris Evans communicated with ministerial colleagues that the timeframe of 1 January 2012 was simply unachievable. I also know that Safe Work Australia aren’t coming back with a new draft set of regulations for mining until sometime early in 2012; so 1 January 2012 is simply gone. One of the big criticisms that we had was that there was an obscene rush to get these regulations finished to meet this arbitrary deadline of 1 January 2012, and that was precluding proper consideration of pages and pages of detail. It’s pretty clear that the process which we’re now going through is involving a lot more consultation with industry stakeholders, and as a consequence the regulations are now being whipped into shape, which at the end of the day, with a combination of what will go into the general mining regulations and what will go into the industry-specific regulations in Queensland, NSW and WA – and I have to wait until I see the final version – I’m far more comfortable than what I was even a matter of about two months ago. What impact is the NMSF likely to have on the sector? For the bulk of the industry, which is pushing 90 per cent plus, it won’t have an impact because what will be in either the new OHS Act and regulations or retained in industry-specific regulation in Queensland, NSW and WA, will be what people are currently used to. There may be a minimal impact on Victoria, SA and NT, where there will be some more prescription and tighter controls, but again, in nine cases out of 10, the companies that are already operating in those states – and bearing in mind it’s a very small portion of the Australian mining industry – are operating in other states under a stricter regime anyway; so it’s not going to bother them.
How does the NMSF compare internationally?
There is simply no question that the mining laws currently in the major mining jurisdictions – Queensland and NSW, and to a slightly lesser extent, WA – are head and shoulders over what is generally available and in place right throughout the western world. The new amended laws, given now what is growing a confidence on my or the CFMEU’s part, won’t be any degradation of that high level of standards. The new laws, nationally, will be head and shoulders above what else is around the world. We’ve got an exceptional record; yes we still have injuries and, tragically, fatalities, but we are a long way ahead of what is going on in the United States, what just went on in New Zealand, what is continuing to happen in South Africa, and god knows what is happening in some of the less-developed countries because the information is simply not getting out, and we only get a somewhat censored version of what is going on in China. We have a lot to be proud of as far as our mining OHS legislation is concerned, and we as a union have no intention of letting that slip away through this harmonisation process; that is what we’ve made quite clear from the outset.
Are there any signs of change around the definition of the term “reasonably practicable”?
There is no reason to change it. It has a legal standing currently. It’s not consistent with a slightly different set of words that are used in the miningspecific legislation around the country at the present time. People will understand that if there is a prosecution, that if you haven’t taken all steps which are reasonably practicable, you’re going to end up with a prosecution. It’s just not good enough to say, ‘I didn’t think about that’, or, ‘It was going to cost too much’. Enshrined in the legislation is going to be the hierarchy of controls, which we’re debating exactly how to put that into place specifically, which makes it clear that you have to go through a process, and the aim is eliminating the hazard; if you can’t eliminate it then you have to properly manage it; that’s the concept.
Do you envisage any additional paperwork required for employers under the NMSF above and beyond what currently exists?
Again, not in the major states where safety management systems are properly recorded, transparent and open, and are features of the existing legislation. To a slightly lesser extent, yes, there will be a requirement that it’s recognised as being pretty much industry best practice; industry best practice is having safety management systems which are recorded, transparent, available and which all employers are trained in. Again, South Australia doesn’t have that stuff at the present time, but BHP operates the biggest mine in that state, which will be one of the biggest mines in the world, and they do it right throughout all their operations in Queensland, NSW and WA; so it’s no big deal.
Currently General Secretary of the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union – Mining and Energy Division and currently appointed as Director and Chairman of the United Colliery Joint Venture; Director and Deputy Chairman of the Coal Mining Industry Long Service Leave Corporation; Director of the Maritime Mining and Power Credit Union; Chair of the ICEM Mining Sector; and member.
Vickers represents the CFMEU on the Steering group developing the National Mine Safety Framework (NMSF) and various working groups developing the seven NMSF strategies; coordinated the Mining and Energy Divisions response to the COAG proposed OHS harmonisation; is a representative on MSAC’s health working party, musculoskeletal disorder working group, and fatigue management working group; and was a representative on the “Digging Deeper” Project Steering Group.
As Queensland District President of the Union (in its various pre-amalgamation forms) from January 1981 to June 2006, served as a member of Coal Mine Safety and Health Advisory Council under the Queensland Coal Mining Safety and Health Act 2001; as a member of the working party that developed that Act; and as a member of the Steering Group that oversaw the review of the Mines Inspectorate in Queensland.
His union ‘career’ commenced at 18 years of age when elected to the first of many honorary positions as the Goonyella Branch Secretary of the Queensland Colliery Employees Union.
Vickers was elected to the Queensland Presidency from the then Utah Development Company’s Goonyella Mine where he worked as a Cadet Mine Surveyor and a Washplant Operator for a little over nine years, having commenced employment there at the end of 1971.
As Queensland District President was the “Principal” officer for the Union in the State of Queensland, and was principal advocate and chief negotiator dealing with all mining companies (including Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton, Anglo Coal and Xstrata), as well as dealings with the State Government on all matters affecting mining communities and union members.