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Miners' safety at risk

Saturday, 23rd May, 2009

By Andrew Vickers, General Secretary, CFMEU Mining and Energy Division

Mining communities like ours, here in Broken Hill, know that our industry is one of the most dangerous in Australia, with more than 13 miners killed on average each year in the past decade.

In fact, many of our communities have erected memorials, like our Line of Lode miners' memorial, to mark the deaths of hundreds of our miners killed at work as a result of explosions or roof falls or any of the many other dangers in our industry.

Our history demands that we recognise the critical need for tough safety laws that help protect miners and their families and ensure the long-term future of mining communities. However, Federal Government changes to occupational health and safety laws could undermine the strong standards that miners in many States and Territories already have. Traditionally, OH&S laws have been the responsibility of State and Territory Governments. Unions and industry leaders too have worked together with these regulators to develop laws that tackled the specific hazards involved with digging minerals and coal out of the ground. It means that we have had separate systems in each state and territory but the important thing is that these laws have developed over time and toughened as new dangers have been identified. Sadly, there is a view developing that industry specific OH&S laws, like we have in NSW with the Coal Mine and Safety Act, have no place in modern Australia. Under the Federal Government's National OH&S Harmonisation Review, there is a growing view among lawyers and bureaucrats that industry specific safety laws - laws that protect coal and metalliferous miners for example - ought to be scrapped. More concerning, the group of State, Territory and Federal Ministers that has been charged with overseeing the review, the Workplace Relations Ministers' Council, remains deathly silent on the important issue of miners' safety. In fact, in a statement by the group made in April, work will start on the new OH&S laws this month without any discussion about the need for specific laws to protect coal miners. It's a serious matter but clearly has not been given serious attention. About 233 individual recommendations were made to the Federal Government as it moves to change OH&S laws, including the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union's recommendation to not ignore the specific dangers coal miners face. The trouble is that coal miners and their families and their union have been left in the dark. We still do not know if the new laws will be tailored to meet the safety needs of our industry. Despite this, the Federal Government is pressing on with its changes. Yet the reality remains that the safety of miners and their families and the future of our mining communities are too important to ignore. And we have fought too long and too hard for tough safety standards in our industry to give them up now. The bonus now is on State, Territory and Federal Workplace Relations Ministers to come clean on their changes to OH&S laws and reassure mining communities that their health and safety will not be forgotten.

The time has come for governments, regulators, industry leaders, employees and unions to come together again in the interests of making mines safer places to work and reducing miner deaths. Will the Federal Government now bring everyone to the table?

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