Regional community concerns over risks from FIFO workforces is escalating in the midst of the developing national COVID-19 crisis.
This week a number of allegations have been raised with mine safety regulators regarding the conduct of FIFO workforces in regional communities. Some of those concerns related to mineworkers with a requirement to self-isolate, being directed to attend work by supervisory staff in mines.
Workers have also raised issues with mining safety regulators over a range of safety concerns including that some mineworkers who have travelled overseas have not complied with self-isolation requirements after being overseas or in close contact with confirmed cases. In some cases, regulators have been informed that some workers have also been informed that social distancing requirements to do not apply at a mine site because mining is considered an ‘essential service.’
Workers told AMSJ that they have been compelled to travel in groups in personnel transports and vehicles, with no or little possibility of maintaining social distancing requirements.
“It’s a free for all” one worker told AMSJ. “Some mines are taking it seriously but others are endangering workers and communities in which they operate,” the worker said on the condition of anonymity.
Council concern grows
Regional Councils are also concerned about the health risk to elderly residents because of the inherent risks of FIFO workforces spreading COVID-19 in communities. There are gaps in the existing controls that need to be addressed sooner rather than later councils told AMSJ.
Isaac Regional Council Mayor Cr Anne Baker has called on all stakeholders, particularly industry and government, to play their part to secure a localised workforce model to underpin Australia’s ability to weather this storm.
“We are not calling on the industry to shut down, as the Prime Minister said everyone who has a job at this point in time is an essential worker,” Mayor Baker said.
Mayor Baker added that “A residential model effectively retards the risk of the virus being introduced to our region from workers commuting via planes and through airports. The model must include identifying the essential staff and working these roles into the residential model.”
“Get these essential workers to the region now, screen and assess their health to ensure safety and house them into the existing industry accommodation.”
“We do not want to see the industry shut down but there must be the safeguards for our community and industry. State government’s own advice to all of Queensland is for people to stay in their own suburbs, we strongly agree. A local residential model will protect our communities with workers being housed locally.”
“We want the workers on the front line to be safe. A residential model will keep this critical industry going to effectively underwrite our declining economy, ensure communities are safe from the movement of workers and people with jobs are spending their money within the local businesses that need their support.
“We are relying on people doing the right thing. Government, industry, community, everybody must carry the responsibility to get us through to the other side.
Mining unions are also concerned with risks
Mining Unions are concerned that the gaps in the current system are potentially being exploited by some in the industry.
CFMEU Mining and Energy Queensland President Stephen Smyth said today that mining was essential for jobs and the economy during the current crisis, but companies need to lift their health and safety game.
“It is possible for mining companies to substantially manage the risks associated with exposing workers to COVID-19,” said Mr Smyth.
“Hygiene and social distancing must be strictly enforced at mine sites as well as camps and transport including planes and buses.
“Unfortunately, we are seeing too many cases at the moment where mine operators are just not taking this seriously enough – with workers crammed into vehicles and inadequate sanitation. Mining companies must make sure their policies are being strictly adhered to at every site.”
The industry must also heed the concerns of regional mining communities concerned about the risks posed by fly-in workforces, said Mr Smyth.
“To reduce the risks to workers and communities associated with the widespread use of fly-in workers, we encourage mining companies to look at housing workers locally where possible and appropriate.
“The mining industry must play its part in reducing exposure of workers and community members to COVID-19 and we urge companies to work with local mining communities to find solutions.
“Mining companies need their social license to operate more than ever and they must do the right thing by the communities that host their operations.”
Lack of regulatory enforcement of COVID-19 controls
While it is clear that the controls associated with mitigating the risks of COVID-19 are being undertaken by most major miners, there is also a range of well-founded concerns that are held by some mineworkers and regional communities. On the basis of evidence released from one safety regulator today, there is much more than needs to be done to control community transmission of the disease amongst some FIFO workers and the communities where those workers operate.
At present, State Regulation of the COVID-19 crisis appears largely left up to Health Departments who are unfamiliar with the operational requirements of measure implemented at mine sites. The lack of scrutiny of operational risk measures by some mining safety regulators is clearly one that is emerging.
The current ‘soft control’ approach to letting an industry manage the risk to communities and indeed FIFO workers is potentially fraught with danger. The safety-based hierarchy of controls tells us that administrative controls seldom function well and must be effectively policed where there is a variety of safety cultures existing in the industry.
A disjointed approach to COVID-19 in the mining industry is clearly a risk with a potentially catastrophic outcome that cannot be ignored.
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