By Andrew Seccombe
Chairperson of the Board of Professional Engineers of Queensland
Technical Manager, Blackrock Mining Solutions Pty Ltd
I cannot remember how many times throughout my mining career that someone has said that the mining legislation, which is in place now to protect miners, is ‘written in blood’. Essentially meaning, the reason why there is such rigorous mining legislation in Queensland is because of workplace mining fatalities that have happened in the past. We must learn from these tragic events so that they are not repeated in the future.
The proponents of the legislation the regulates the engineering profession in Queensland learned from experience overseas that it was needed to protect people and uphold professional standards. The Professional Engineers Act (PE Act) of Queensland was first passed in 1929 and was modelled on similar legislation passed in California, United States after the St Francis Dam collapse, which killed over 431 people. At the time, most governments were grappling with the economic hardship of the great depression and were trying to stimulate growth and jobs by investing in large civil infrastructure projects. However, with this sudden investment in engineering projects, substandard engineering design and construction practices were being used.
The Board of Professional Engineers of Queensland (BPEQ) is the regulator of professional engineering services in Queensland. The objectives of the PE Act are to:
- Protect the public by ensuring professional engineering services are provided by a registered professional engineer of Queensland (RPEQ) in a professional and competent way.
- Maintain public confidence in the standard of services provided by RPEQs.
- Uphold the standards of practice of RPEQs.
To carry out a professional engineering service in Queensland or for Queensland, engineers are required to be registered with BPEQ. The only exceptions are if an unregistered person carries out the professional engineering service under the direct supervision of a RPEQ or the service is carried out only in accordance with a prescriptive standard. Once an engineer is registered they are awarded the protected title RPEQ.
BPEQ is also charged with investigating and disciplining RPEQs for unsatisfactory professional conduct and prosecuting individuals for breaching the PE Act (e.g. carrying out a professional engineering service when unregistered).
Professional engineering service means an engineering service that requires, or is based on, the application of engineering principles and data to a design, or to a construction, production, operation or maintenance activity, relating to engineering, and does not include an engineering service that is provided only in accordance with a prescriptive standard.
Historically there has been a trend for some engineers and consultants working in the mining sector to think that they don’t need to become registered as they are working under either the Coal Mine Safety and Health Act and Regulations or the Mining and Quarrying Safety and Health Act and Regulations. This is untrue.
If you are delivering a professional engineering service within or for Queensland and you are not a RPEQ or directly supervised by a RPEQ then you are breaking the law and could face disciplinary action and prosecution.
Everyday, engineers for mining companies are applying engineering principles to important design, production, construction or maintenance decisions that can impact the workplace health and safety of mine workers and the public and these engineers need to be held to the highest professional standards.
The mining industry seems to be particularly susceptible to employing someone with ‘engineer’ in their job title who has no engineering qualification at all. How does someone know if that person is competent or not? Only the protected title of RPEQ can tell you this.
So, what differentiates someone who calls themselves an engineer and someone who is a RPEQ? A RPEQ is someone that has:
- Attained an appropriate recognised qualification;
- Completed at least four to five years of professional experience in the related discipline post-graduation;
- Has been assessed by one of the approved assessment entities; and
- Has applied to the BPEQ as fit to practice as a professional engineer.
I am a practising RPEQ. My area of expertise is in geotechnical (mining) and I rely on my registration on a daily basis when onsite or working from the office in a consulting capacity. RPEQ is essential for my job. My day-to-day job onsite includes the design of underground excavations, monitoring, inspections and risk management which all involve the application of engineering principles
Within the company I work for, I am one of four mining geotechnical engineers with RPEQ. We supervise a total six engineers as they work towards RPEQ registration themselves. Our team of RPEQs directly supervise the junior engineers to ensure compliance with the PE Act.
Becoming a RPEQ is a significant achievement and it means a lot to me and those engineers I know that are registered. When I sit down to sign the certificates for new RPEQs, it gives me a great sense of satisfaction seeing the effort that many engineers have taken to become leaders within their field.
Figures from the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (AusIMM) show us that the number of engineers working in the disciplines of mining, metallurgy, environmental and geotechnical in the mining sector is far above the number of RPEQs in these disciplines registered with BPEQ and employed by mining companies. This raises questions of compliance with the PE Act. In the coming months, staff from BPEQ will be conducting seminars with engineers from mining companies large and small. The aim of this engagement program is to increase the number of RPEQs in the mining sector and therefore improve the sector’s compliance. Engagement is always BPEQ’s preferred option but as a regulator the organisation is also obligated to investigate and prosecute non-compliance with the PE Act.
I encourage all engineers or managers of engineers in the mining sector to ask themselves the following questions. Are you undertaking professional engineering services in or for Queensland? Do you want to avoid potential discipline and prosecution? Do you want to be easily identified as a competent engineer within your area of expertise? If so, it is time to register as a RPEQ. Being a RPEQ demonstrates your qualification, competence and experience but it is also the law.