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What BHP’s Asset President said about mine safety

James Palmer BHP - Mine Safety Changes required
James Palmer has alluded to safety at BHPs BMA operations hasn't been up to scratch. BHP mine safety changes are needed.

James Palmer, BHP’s Captain of the ship in the Bowen Basin gave a speech to industry players last week in Mackay. That speech alluded to an acknowledgement of the state of safety in mines across BHP in the region….(sounds of applause)…

But many in the industry are all too sceptical surrounding the remarks in the wake of the range of high potential incidents that have occurred at BMA sites over the past several months and the tragic death of an operator earlier this year.

Mr Palmer acknowledged to the meeting that he wanted to see ‘a safer and more inclusive workplace and an industry where we all go home safe at the end of the day. ‘An industry that’s fatality-free’ was the term used.

He said ‘But the truth of the matter is, that is not the reality we know in our sector right now. The statistics are confronting – six fatalities in the past 12 months.’

“At BMA, there is no way of avoiding the tragic facts over the past few years.
In 2015 we lost Laurie Donovan. In 2017 we lost Daniel Springer and
we lost Allan Houston just over six months ago.

JAMES PALMER, BMA ASSET PRESIDENT

Mr Palmer’s acknowledgement of the deaths of workers moves a small way to an acknowledgement of some of the issues at BHPs BMA sites where there is a litany of past drawn-out legal cases surrounding workplace fatalities, worker injuries and work-related illnesses.

A source told AMSJ that there are inherent cultural issues present at a range of BMA sites in the region which may contradict Mr Palmer’s claims. Some of the claims provided to AMSJ included claims of cover-ups and failure to take action on known critical hazards across the BMA sites including those related to mining equipment working around sumps.

Workers also highlighted the sometimes conflicting roles of middle management at BMA sites where middle management production bonuses sometimes resulted in ‘compromised on-site safety’ or ‘non-disclosure of safety issues to senior management.’

While not specifically defined by BHP in public documentation, middle management production bonus structures are believed to range from 15-100% of basic salary.

Recent research (Armstrong, 2019 et al.) from the Vale Brumandinho tailings dam disaster hypothesises on the impact of ‘production bonuses’ on safety.’ Armstrong highlights that bonus structures may impact risk-taking behaviours in middle management. Of course, it would never happen in BHP.

At the meeting, Mr Palmer gave a commitment to do everything possible to ensure ‘this never happens again.’

Like many before him in the big Australian, he has also espoused values of safety and a commitment to ensure that it won’t happen again. Which makes one think if he is starting to believe his own rhetoric?

He said to the meeting:

  • Internally, over the past six months, we have been reviewing and resetting our safety standards and refocusing on our life-saving critical controls.  
  • At BHP and BMA, we are also an active participant in the current industry-wide safety re-set – working closely with the Palaszczuk government, the Queensland Resources Council, and fellow operators and;
  • Next month, as we do annually, we will be participating in the Queensland Mining Industry Health and Safety conference – with a particular focus on reforms that will strengthen the safety culture in the resources sector.

“To be candid, we recognise we have more work to do – and we can’t ever be complacent about safety.”

“Safety never stops – but, at BMA, we are encouraged by the statistics for the last quarter, which tell us that we are improving, by setting standards we can be proud of”

“And I am committed to maintaining this momentum,” he said.

“As we always say to our people, our achievements and performance mean nothing – if we don’t all go home safe at the end of the day.”

Of course, the congruence between Mr Palmer’s espoused theory and ‘theory in practice’ will become evident in the very near term as he and others at BMA take the stand regarding the death of miner Big Al Houston.

Fortunately for Mr Palmer, there are some learnings that have evolved over the years in the somewhat ‘tainted’ past of BHP safety in the mining industry.

Andrew Mackenzie Speaking at the Joint Statement by Vale and BHP Billiton following the Samarco Tailings Disaster

Many before him have wrongly perceived their own actions as correct in respect of safety. Evidence of past inquiries (including those tragedies of Moura, Kianga and Appin) have pointed to actions of some at BHP covertly interrupting processes or seeking to gloss over the past mistakes.

Some, it appears, have even actively sought to advocate for courses of action which discouraged inquiry within the industry…..

It’s no doubt a tough gig at the helm of a ship as big as BHP BMA’s Coal Division. Navigating that ship through the current murky waters will require a captain who embraces the imperatives for BHP mine safety change and who understands that sometimes you need to take a serious look backwards, to see where you’ve been before you can ultimately move forward.

References

Argyris, C., Putnam, R., & McLain Smith, D.  (1985) Action science: concepts, methods, and skills for research and intervention.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

M. Armstrong, R Petter, C Petter (2019) Why have so many tailings dams failed in recent years? In Resources Policy Volume 63, October 2019, 101412

Image: BHP James Palmer Asset Superintendent

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