The deaths of two men who fell down a mine chute while working at a copper mine on Tasmania’s west coast were “completely avoidable”, a coroner has found.
Craig Gleeson, 45, and Alistair Lucas, 25, fell 22 metres down a mine shaft after a temporary platform they were working on collapsed on December 9, 2013.
The two men were undertaking maintenance work at the Copper Mines of Tasmania Queenstown mine.
The following month, another worker died.
Michael Welsh, 53, died on January 17, 2014, in a mud rush.
Coroner Simon Cooper has handed down his findings into the deaths of the three men.
“The deaths of Mr Gleeson, Mr Lucas and Mr Welsh were tragic, and, in the cases of Mr Gleeson and Mr Lucas, completely avoidable,” Mr Cooper said.
“Apart from the terrible impact of their deaths upon their families, who lost much-loved husbands, partners, sons and fathers, it is quite apparent that their deaths, so close together, had a profound effect on the tight-knit community of Queenstown,” Mr Cooper said.
“Unlike many workers both on Tasmania’s West Coast and throughout many areas of regional Australia, Mr Gleeson, Mr Lucas and Mr Welsh all lived locally in Queenstown. They were very much part of that proud and resilient community.
“Their deaths robbed the community of three important members. Many people lost a friend, team mate or co-worker. That sense of loss was palpable during the inquest, particularly during the hearing days in Queenstown.”
Temporary platform ‘completely insecure’
On December 9, 2013, Mr Gleeson and Mr Lucas were given a routine maintenance task of changing flask linkages on a discharge door cylinder.
“So that they could gain access to the linkage assembly, Mr Gleeson and Mr Lucas had to first construct a temporary work platform,” Mr Cooper said.
He said the platform was constructed from king billy pine — a soft wood not considered to be a structural timber — and was “completely insecure”.
“I am quite satisfied it was wholly inadequate as a base for Mr Gleeson and Mr Lucas — or indeed anyone — to work over a 25-metre deep shaft,” Mr Cooper said.
“Mr Gleeson and Mr Lucas died because a heavy piece of the machinery upon which they were working, the linkage and arm attached to a steel plate, weighing approximately 62 kilograms, fell approximately 0.538 metres onto the soft wood platform — which was, of course, unsecured.”
The platform gave way and Mr Gleeson and Mr Lucas fell down the shaft a distance of approximately 22 metres.
“Neither was anchored by a lanyard attached to a safety harness. The fall from the platform was the direct cause of their deaths.”
In relation to the two men’s deaths, Mr Cooper recommended:
-There be no further use of temporary work platforms, like that from which Mr Gleeson and Mr Lucas fell to their deaths
-Instead of temporary work platforms, properly designed, engineered and constructed platforms only be used
-All workers be required in all appropriate circumstances to use appropriate fall-arrest equipment, such as harnesses and lanyards
-All workers be trained in the use of fall-arrest equipment
-There be regular auditing and supervision of the adherence to the use of fall-arrest equipment to ensure appropriate use
“Mr Gleeson’s and Mr Lucas’s deaths illustrate the critical importance of the development and adherence to appropriate safe operating systems, procedures and protocols. This is especially pronounced in an industry such as mining where there are no second chances,” the Coroner said.
Michael Welsh rescue effort praised
Mr Welsh, known to his workmates as “Digger”, had more than 20 years’ experience in the mining industry.
On January 17, 2014, he was assigned to work at a draw point — an area of the mine where ore is loaded.
Mr Cooper said Mr Welsh’s job was to “bog” at the draw point.
“Bogging involves the removal of broken rock, which contains ore, from a draw point using the loader,” he said.
“About 7:45am, Mr Welsh and his loader were completely engulfed by a mud rush event … The force of the mud rush was such that the loader — remembering it weighted between 60 and 80 tonnes — was pushed back a considerable distance.
“Mud, rocks and the like were up to the level of the axles and completely covered the front end of the machine. The operator cab windows were destroyed and the cab itself full of mud and rocks.”
Mr Cooper said the emergency response to the mud rush that killed Mr Welsh was timely and professional.
“Nothing more could have been done for Mr Welsh after the incident occurred.”
Mr Cooper said he could not make a finding that “by reason of any failure to strictly adhere to” controls at ore loading points in the mine resulted in the mud rush that caused Mr Welsh’s death.
“I am satisfied that there was practical and effective adherence to the controls imposed by (mine management plans) in the days and hours leading to Mr Welsh’s death,” he said.
Mr Cooper did recommend, however, that auditing of risk management tools and decision-making processes by mine management be formalised.
He suggested the process be made consistent with the New South Wales code of practice relating to inundation and inrush hazard management.
Coroner urges ‘more modern’ methods
Extraction of ore from the Mount Lyell mine at Queenstown stopped after Mr Welsh’s death and the mine was put into “care and maintenance mode”.
“If or when the mine is to reopen, then the evidence was that it would adopt more modern mining methodology,” Mr Cooper said.
He said the use of tele-remote boggers were also anticipated in the future, which “at the very least would place significant physical distance between the bogger operator and … the point most vulnerable to a mud rush”.
“It is evident that CMT have expended significant resources in relation to planning for the safe reopening of the mine, at some unidentified time in the future,” he said.
“Not only will the change in mining methodology serve to reduce — but not eliminate — the risk of mud rush but … means that the task which claimed the lives of Mr Gleeson and Mr Lucas will no longer need to be carried out.”
Copper Mines of Tasmania is in the process of selling the Mount Lyell mine. A spokesman for the company said it was aiming for the sale to be completed by the end of this month.