A court has heard a 53-year-old mine worker was buried alive after the floor of an open pit collapsed into a massive void created by old underground workings.
Excavator operator, Bruce Harris, narrowly survived the incident on August 21, 2015, which occurred in the North Royal pit near the historic gold mining town of Norseman in Western Australia’s Goldfields.
The Kalgoorlie Magistrate’s Court heard it took more than two hours to rescue Mr Harris, who was trapped in the machine and buried by rocks and broken glass from the cab.
The ABC has obtained images of the incident, which show the 30-tonne excavator hanging precariously above the open stope.
The arm and bucket of the digger became stuck on the edge of the crevice, saving Mr Harris from plummeting to his death.
The court heard Mr Harris suffered two collapsed lungs and crushing injuries to his legs and back, along with severe depression and post-traumatic stress disorder in the aftermath.
Mr Harris, who now lives in Bunbury and has returned to work in the mining industry, was employed by Kalgoorlie-based mining contractor Hampton Civil and Mining at the time.
The company was engaged by Central Norseman Gold Corporation, which has pleaded not guilty to failing to maintain a working environment where employees were not exposed to hazards.
Sydney-based Central Norseman has been controlled by Kevin Maloney’s Tulla Resources Group, with the mining magnate’s personal fortune estimated at about $541 million, according to the Australian Financial Review’s 2019 Rich List.
A two-day trial concluded late on Thursday after seven witnesses took the stand.
Miner blames contractor for near-miss
The court heard the workers were conducting remnant mining, which involved digging out ore left behind by previous operators.
The dangerous job involved the mining of stone pillars, which supported the ceiling of the underground mine.
Central Norseman admitted it did not develop a void model – a so-called “underground map” – outlining what was not visible from the surface.
It also agreed it should have retained a geotechnical engineer and that there was “inadequate” probe-hole drilling to determine if there were voids present.
Defence lawyer, Alex Manos, argued Central Norseman provided geological expertise but little else, taking a backseat to Hampton’s operators during the remnant mining phase.
His legal arguments centred on interpretations of section 15 of the Mines Safety and Inspections Act, which covered contract work and labour hire arrangements.
“Central Norseman used their geological expertise to tell Hampton where to dig and where to blast,” Mr Manos said.
“Hampton would then go execute that plan, organise the machinery, workers, conduct all the servicing to make ensure the equipment was working.
“The only way it was profitable for them [Hampton] was if the machinery was working … it was Hampton exerting control over the workers.”
Prosecutor Edward Fearis, from the State Solicitor’s Office, argued Central Norseman would be “slipping through the gap” if it avoided conviction.
“Central Norseman admit everything except whether they are the core employer,” he said.
Contract initially a ‘handshake agreement’
Multiple Hampton personnel took the stand, including Mr Harris, who surprisingly was not asked about his recollection of the incident but rather logistics at the mine site.
All of the Hampton workers testified that they took orders from Central Norseman management.
The general manager of Hampton’s mining division, Greg Price, testified that the contract began as an informal agreement for a “small job”.
But he said pen was later put to paper after more gold was found.
“The contract was basically to put some formality around it … it was basically a handshake and [an] over-the-phone agreement,” Mr Price said.
He said he coordinated logistics with Central Norseman.
“Project management depends on the size of the company … a larger company will supply their own,” Mr Price said.
“This was a small job and they [Central Norseman] supplied all the technical staff.”
Mine management oversaw mine blasting
Julian Phillips, who was Central Norseman’s mine superintendent when the incident occurred, told the court that Hampton was paid monthly for every hour its equipment was working, rather than by the tonnages it mined.
Mr Phillips said operators were switched out “a few times”, including on at least one occasion when a Hampton employee failed a blood-alcohol test.
He was asked about daily pre-start meetings, which he said were part of the routine on every mine site in Australia.
“It would start with any safety issues from the previous day and what we wanted to achieve for the coming day,” Mr Phillips said.
“I would typically run the meeting and then it would be handed over to Hamptons to allocate their team to their machines for that day.”
Mr Phillips said he oversaw the drill and blast schedule – where explosives were placed into the ground to break up rock – alongside the shot firer and Hampton’s sub-contractors, Westdrill.
He was also responsible for “ore spotting” to ensure the excavator operators were digging out the “right coloured dirt” and not wasting rock.
“We drew up the mining plan, so they [Hampton] followed us,” Mr Phillips said.
Central Norseman’s operations, 200 kilometres south of Kalgoorlie-Boulder, comprises the North Royal, Harlequin and Bullen mining areas and the Phoenix Mill.
Magistrate Hills-Wright told the court his verdict would be guided by the legislation, reserving his decision until January 31.
Mr Harris declined to comment on the case until after the decision.