The Guardian 1 June, 2005

BHP Billiton to face charges

Minerals giant, BHP Billiton, will face four charges arising from last year’s death of Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) member, James Wadley, in a horrific gas explosion at Port Hedland.

As Western Australian authorities confirmed charges would be laid under the state’s Mines, Safety and Inspection laws, it was revealed Australia’s largest company had recorded a staggering 32 “near fatalities” since Wadley and that two other had workers lost their lives.

BHP Billiton documents show the company has identified 32 “potential level four incidents” in the past 10 months. In BHP-speak, level four equates to a “near fatality”.

“Potentially fatal incidents are continuing to occur across all of our operations”, the company’s document concedes. “The number of potential level four incidents recorded at BHPB Iron Ore since July, 2004, is as follows: Port and Rail 16; Mining 16.”

A source, with years of mining industry experience, said some of the level four incidents recorded had endangered the safety of multiple workers. Last week’s charges stem from a lengthy inquiry, conducted by Perth solicitor Mark Ritter, that found BHP’s safety procedures had been compromised by its industrial relations policy.

In a scathing report, Ritter fingered AWAs, the Federal government’s non-union individual contracts, at the centre of John Howard’s industrial relations agenda. Ritter found BHP Billiton’s drive to individual contracts was a “factor which has impacted and continues to impact on the successful implementation of safety systems”.

The inquiry was launched at union insistence, following the deaths of three workers at BHP Pilbarra sites in the space of a month.

AMWU delegate, Corey Bentley, lost his life at a Port Hedland iron facility, on May 2, 2004. Following his death, company reps removed posters exhorting employees to “aim high, move fast”, and graphically illustrating how far they had fallen behind million-tonne production targets.

James Wadley died when a gas explosion tore through the nearby Boodarie hot briquette plant. Royal Flying Doctor Service aircraft from Derby, Meetkatharra and Port Hedland were mobilised to transfer injured workers to hospitals.

On the same day, a 19-year-old apprentice had his head crushed at BHP’s Ore Body 25, near Newman, by what the company described as “a piece of equipment”.

AMWU state secretary, Jock Ferguson, welcomed the prosecutions and urged authorities to pursue them vigorously. “This decision is vindication of Port Hedland workers who stood up and demanded an arms-length inquiry at a meeting we held up there last year”, he said.

“They wanted an inquiry because they believed BHP’s production-at-all-costs mentality was endangering their safety.”

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