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Mine workers wearing high-vis clothing attending to injured worker underground in dark with head lamp turned on.
The Chamber of Minerals and Energy WA conducts mine rescue competitions every year to maintain life-saving skills.(ABC Goldfields: Jarrod Lucas)
Western Australia’s mining industry has a bloody history — nearly 1,900 workers have died on the job in the past 130 years.

Key points:

  • Western Australia had close to 500 operating mines varying in size and commodity in 2018–19
  • At the peak of the mining boom, WA’s resources sector employed 107,335 workers in 2013–14, which has grown to 123,870 workers
  • About 49 per cent of the workforce is employed in the iron ore industry and 25 per cent works in gold mining

While safety standards have improved dramatically over the past two decades, new figures released this week show WA mine workers are being seriously injured at a rate of one every day.

The Department of Mines, Industry Regulation and Safety (DMIRS) report shows there are 16,000 more workers in the resources sector now than during the mining boom.

WA’s mining workforce has nearly tripled since 1997–98 — when there were 13 deaths — from 43,466 workers to 123,870 in 2018–19.

During the 12 months to June 30 last year, two truck drivers died, 29-year-old Daniel Leslie Patterson in the Pilbara and 44-year-old Andrew Ivan Herd at a Perth quarry.

Historian Moya Sharp at her Kalgoorlie home
Kalgoorlie historian Moya Sharp documents the untold stories of workers killed in the resources industry.(ABC Goldfields: Sam Tomlin)

It is a personal tragedy all-too-familiar for Kalgoorlie historian Moya Sharp, whose 22-year-old son Andrew Heaney died in the Super Pit gold mine in 2004.Since his death, Mrs Sharp has dedicated her life to developing the Western Australian Virtual Miners’ Memorial.

She has researched the lives of 1,888 workers who have died on WA mines, including 1,479 in WA’s Goldfields.

Many died in the early years of Kalgoorlie’s 1890s gold rush, but the dangerous reputation of the mining industry is underlined by the fact 85 workers have been killed since 1997.

“Mining is always going to be a dangerous job,” Mrs Sharp said.

“Things are getting better and better all the time, using remote vehicles, the safety equipment that’s provided and the instruction and the procedures they go through to learn the right way to do things is improving every year.

The reason she tells their stories is, so they do not become just another statistic.

A mine worker wearing high-vis clothing holding a hammer and miner's helmet.
A hammer and miner’s helmet are blessed as part of the annual St Barbara’s Festival in Kalgoorlie-Boulder, which honours the patron saint of mining.(ABC Goldfields: Jarrod Lucas)

Worker lost two fingers

The DMIRS report shows lost-time injuries (LTIs) increased 20 per cent in 2018-19 with 425.

The total number of days workers were off injured was 10,359, while workers had a further 11,776 days on restricted duties once they returned.

There were 365 incidents classified as “serious”, which is an injury that disables a worker for two weeks or more.

Here are some examples of “serious” incidents:

  • An underground diamond driller had two fingers amputated after getting his hand trapped between the chuck jaws and the water swivel on his rig.
  • An open-pit worker sustained multiple leg fractures after material he was clearing from underneath an excavator fell onto his lower body.
  • A worker suffered serious injuries after falling 10 metres while building internal scaffolding in a vessel at a processing plant.
  • A shift supervisor setting up for underground blasting operations fractured both his ankles after a basketball-sized rock fell from the wall face and ricocheted in his direction.
  • Two workers investigating a blockage at a processing plant were hit by hot caustic solution when it vented. One received burns to the eyes, neck, arm and groin and the other to the eyes and neck.
Miner workers wearing high-vis clothing walking into a mine shaft.
Emergency response personnel head into the Mt Charlotte underground mine near Kalgoorlie.(ABC Goldfields: Jarrod Lucas)

How do mining giants compare?

In WA, there are no bigger players than iron ore giants BHP and Rio Tinto.While both companies trumpet their safety records, the ABC tried to compare them against the state average for lost-time injury frequency rates (LTIFR).

The statistic is based on the number of injuries per million hours worked and has risen from 2.0 to 2.2 across WA.

But BHP and Rio Tinto would not provide numbers breaking down their Pilbara iron ore operations.

Rio Tinto, which employs more than 12,000 workers in the Pilbara, quoted an injury frequency rate equivalent to 1.35 across its global operations last year.

Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals Group reported a LTIFR of 0.7.

Gold miner Northern Star Resources, the new co-owners of Kalgoorlie’s Super Pit, was slightly better at 0.5.

Fellow gold miners Saracen Mineral Holdings (0.8), St Barbara (1.1) and Evolution Mining (1.75) were also below the industry average.

A mining truck carrying iron ore on a remote mine site.
Most of the serious injuries recorded last financial year occurred on the surface, with 331 compared to 34 underground.(Supplied: Fortescue Metals Group)

Safety overhaul long overdue

One of the biggest overhauls in mining safety occurred in 1997 when WA’s then-Mines Minister Normal Moore ordered an inquiry following a spate of deaths caused by underground rock falls.

Since then, the rate of injuries per million hours worked has come down 72 per cent.

Two miner workers underground in the dark.
Jumbo operator Phillip Scott-Smith with Gary Creagh in 1988 at the Windarra mine, which set off WA’s nickel boom in the 1960s.(Supplied: State Library Of Western Australia)

“A friend of mine once said miners are the wounded soldiers of industry and I think that’s an apt quote,” Mrs Sharp said.

“After (then-Mines Minister Norman) Moore stepped in and stirred things up, safety seems to have improved a great deal.”

Miner workers wearing high-vis clothing walking into a mine shaft.
Mine rescue personnel fighting an underground fire during a training scenario.(ABC Goldfields: Jarrod Lucas)

Zero harm the ultimate goal

WA’s current Mines Minister Bill Johnston said the industry must maintain safety standards as it grows.

“I think there have been real improvements in the West Australian resource sector for safety performance, but this report shows there is still room for improvement,” he said.

Man in suit standing at a public lookout overlooking a large gold mine
Mines Minister Bill Johnston at the Super Pit.(ABC Goldfields: Jarrod Lucas)

Mr Johnston hopes beefed-up workplace health and safety laws will pass through State Parliament this year.

The proposed changes include provisions for employers to be charged with industrial manslaughter, with penalties of up to 20 years’ jail and fines of up to $5 million for an individual and $10 million for a corporation.

Miner workers wearing high-vis clothing and breathing apparatus for training.
Mine rescue personnel give each other the thumb’s up while testing breathing apparatus for a firefighting scenario.(ABC Goldfields: Jarrod Lucas)

“Penalties play a part because you have to hold people responsible for their own actions,” he said.