Remember the dead and fight for the living: Appin anniversary a grim reminder of underground mining risks

Published: 23 Jul 2020

Today’s anniversary of the 1979 Appin mine disaster is a reminder about the risks taken by underground mineworkers and the importance of putting safety first, the Miners’ Union said today.
On 24 July 1979, 14 underground coal miners were killed in an underground explosion in Appin mine. The explosion was caused by a methane gas build up in the notoriously gassy coal seam, thought to be ignited by a fault in an exhaust fan. The gas explosion was followed by a coal dust explosion. Ten of the men killed were eating their mid-shift meal in the mine’s crib room. Some badly burnt survivors made it to the surface.
CFMEU Mining and Energy District Vice President Bob Timbs urged Appin’s current owners South32 to address current safety concerns of workers triggered by changes to contracting arrangements at the massive mine.
Mr Timbs said the safest arrangements for underground miners were permanent jobs with income security, so workers felt safe to speak about safety issues and cease production if they identified risks.
However, at least two-thirds of Appin’s current 1500-strong workforce is contracted through a range of labour hire companies. Since April, South 32 has cut contracts with established labour hire suppliers Mastermyne and Nexus, putting 250 people out of work.
Many of these jobs were immediately re-advertised through labour hire companies PIMS and WorkPac, on substantially reduced pay and conditions. The result is that many coal miners at Appin have had cuts to their hourly rates and pay structures that see them receive bonuses based on production rather than performing safety checks.
“The recent explosion at Grosvenor mine in Queensland shows us the ever-present threat in underground mines,” said Mr Timbs.
“We fear that changing coal miners’ employment conditions so they have to chase production targets in order to make up lost pay will hurt the safety culture at Appin, which is already threatened by so many coal miners being employed in insecure labour hire jobs.
“We hear from our Members that workers are afraid to speak up about safety for fear of losing jobs, that injuries are swept under the carpet and that they feel pressured to put production ahead of safety so they don’t jeopardise their workmates’ bonuses.
“As an industry, we must strive to prevent disasters like the 1979 Appin explosion from ever happening again.
“We are urging South32 to do a risk assessment on changes to contracts and pay structures and to give their workers employment and income security so they have the confidence to speak up about safety. Lives depend on it.”