Scope of the Coal Mining Board of Inquiry into methane incidents

On 31 May 2021, the Queensland Coal Mining Board of Inquiry (Board of Inquiry) concluded its examination of the nature and cause of the 6 May 2020 serious accident at Grosvenor mine, near Moranbah, in which five coal mine workers sustained injuries.  The Board of Inquiry also considered 40 high potential incidents (HPIs) involving methane exceedances at four Queensland mines between 1 July 2019 and 5 May 2020.  On 14 June 2021, it published its Part II Report, following the Part I Report released in November 2020.

Minister for Natural Resources, Mines and Energy, Anthony Lynham, tasked the Board of Inquiry with examining the above matters, and making recommendations for improving safety and health practices to mitigate against the risk of similar incidents in the future.

Part I Report

The Part I Report considered HPIs involving methane exceedances that occurred at various Queensland mines between 1 July 2019 and 5 May 2020.  It outlines 82 findings and 25 substantive recommendations for the improvement of safety in Queensland coal mines. 

Relevantly the inquiry found that, while the operational practices and management systems at three of the examined mines and the corporate levels above them were generally adequate and effective to achieve compliance with safety laws and standards for methane exceedances, the potential consequence of the methane exceedances were not properly identified at any of the mines.  The inquiry emphasised that these shortcomings are concerning given the prominent role of methane explosions in underground coal mine accidents and disasters.  The Board of Inquiry recommends that mine operators and parent companies take steps regarding reportable methane exceedances by escalating such incidents and conducting more rigorous investigations.

The Board of Inquiry also examined the industrial manslaughter offence that commenced under the Coal Mining Safety and Health Act 1999 (Qld) (CMSH Act) from 1 July 2020.  The inquiry found that the definition of 'employer' in the relevant provisions fails to extend liability to the mine operator as it only attaches to an entity that employs or engages a coal mine worker under a contract for service.  The Board of Inquiry has recommended that Resources Safety and Health Queensland amend the CMSH Act to reflect Parliament's intention with regard to strengthening safety culture in mining and ensuring consistency in how deaths of workers are treated, and who should be liable to prosecution.

Access the Part I Report here.

Part II Report

The Part II Report addresses the HPIs that occurred at the Grosvenor mine and the 6 May 2020 serious accident.  It also considers matters relating to labour hire arrangements, and the functions of Industry Safety and Health Representatives (ISHRs) and Site Safety and Health Representatives (SSHRs).

Significantly, the inquiry found that the mining operations at the Grosvenor Mine were repeatedly conducted in a manner whereby the gas emissions being generated by the rate of production were in excess of the capacity of the mine's gas drainage system.  It found the coal mine workers were repeatedly subject to an unacceptable level of risk through the operations being conducted in this manner.   Further, it also identified a strong correlation between the mine's production rates and the occurrence of the HPIs.

In the Board of Inquiry's view, spontaneous combustion was the probable cause of the 6 May 2020 serious accident.  It was also the cause of an ignition that occurred at Grosvenor on 8 June 2020.  It emphasised that the occurrence of these events, despite the use of conventional monitoring systems that did not clearly detect them, is of major concern.  On this basis, the report indicates the deficiencies of spontaneous combustion identification and monitoring systems provide reason to consider the role of proactive inertisation of the active goaf, in conjunction with those systems.

The Board of Inquiry also considered the nature and prevalence of labour hire and contract work at Queensland mines and the risks that such arrangements pose to safety at mines.  It found there was a perception among coal mine workers that a labour hire worker or contractor who raises safety concerns at a mine might jeopardise their ongoing employment at the mine.  It noted that implementing a safety and health obligation for labour hire agencies which employ coal mine workers, such as that set out in section 19 of the Work Health and Safety Act 2011  (Qld), would make coal mine operators and labour hire agencies mutually responsible for the safety and health of labour hire workers and add a layer of oversight of safe practices.

Last, the Board of Inquiry found that the functions of SSHRs and ISHRs are most effective where a cooperative arrangement exists between the two, and that there are mutual benefits from a complementary working relationship.  The recommendations focus on enhancing the effectiveness of both roles, and the development of relationships between them.

Access the Part II Report here.

Implications for the coal mining industry  

The recommendations from the two Board of Inquiry reports signal that more legislative reform is likely.  Significantly, more entities may become exposed to the industrial manslaughter offence, and mine operators and labour hire entities may have additional safety responsibilities placed on them.  Legislative reform is of course only one tool to drive improvements in safety performance in the Queensland coal mining industry. 

The Board of Inquiry's findings underscore that operational practices and management systems at mines and at corporate levels must be adequate and effective to achieve compliance with safety laws and standards.  We strongly advise coal mining operators to review existing work health and safety processes, procedures and training to ensure that risks arising from methane exceedances are adequately managed, having regard to the matters raised by Board of Inquiry's investigations.

The issues identified in the Board of Inquiry's reports serve as a reminder of the need for ongoing efforts to lift safety performance if the industry is to break the fatality cycle identified in the December 2019 Brady Report and to achieve the common industry goal of every coal mine worker going home safely, every day. 

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.