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The mining death of Sean Scovell

QLD Mine Safety Commissioner, Stewart Bell.
QLD Mine Safety Commissioner, Stewart Bell. Lauren Reed

WHEN Stewart Bell answers his phone outside work hours, the news is almost always grim.

So, at 8pm on Tuesday, June 5, he was told that 21-year-old Bundaberg man Sean Scovell had been killed at a quarry south of Moranbah.

An hour earlier, Moranbah South Quarry workers from MCG Civil called 000 just moments after Mr Scovell's accident.

Police and other emergency services attended and began very early investigations.

The mines inspectorate - a team of government safety inspectors- were called next, arriving on site from Mackay within hours to interview witnesses and scour the area.

Before they hit the road, they call Mr Bell, the Queensland Commissioner for Mine Safety and Health, a large cog in the machinery of government that begins to whir and turn when a life is snuffed out in the mining industry.

"Nobody ever rings me after hours for good news," Mr Bell said in a phone interview from his Brisbane office.

"They're never calling me to tell me I've won the lotto.

"It makes me feel sick sometimes; I'm living in a constant state of unease.

"I'll notify my superior, the director-general, and we put out an email to all of our senior department staff so they know about it."

To use the same jargon as emergency services, Bundaberg man Sean Scovell perished after becoming "entangled" in a conveyor belt.

Mr Scovell heard a "screech" coming from somewhere inside the contraption and fetched a grease gun to fix it.As he crouched down beside the running belt, he was pulled between the wheels and the metal surrounds.

His death is the first fatality at a mine or quarry this financial year. He would have been the 430th person to die in the coal mining industry since 1882 - the 12th since 2000 - but his job at a quarry means he is counted under different statistics.

The telephone call to Mr Bell is one small piece of a complicated yet necessary string of protocols that guide the investigation of everything from the young man's state of mind -was he fatigued, did he have alcohol or drugs in his system - to safety precautions and mine management.

Ultimately, the Queensland Coroner decides what went wrong, who, if anyone, was to blame, and how a family could be protected from similar trauma.

Police and departmental investigations run in parallel.

"We have to get a very good picture of what happened. We have to check all the equipment," Mr Bell said.

"We have to look at (the company) records and safety procedures."

Most incidents were not new, he said, they were versions of previous incidents or fatalities being played out - he likened them to road crashes.

"It's the same people in motor cars on the highway as in these vehicles. And there are plenty of vehicles on these sites."

In coming months, investigators will interview witnesses - wherever they are across the country - before a final "nature and cause" report is delivered to the coroner.

The report also is considered by the Mines Inspectorate compliance committee on whether any action, including prosecution, should be taken.

The committee often will include the chief inspector of coal mines, a lawyer, chief inspector of mines, a government investigator and, potentially, an independent workplace safety expert.

The chief inspector acts as a chair and the committee recommends whether a person or company needs to be prosecuted. Mr Bell makes the decision on prosecution, but a yes would be rare.

He estimates that of 100 investigations, four might lead to a prosecution.

Even so, Queensland mines are considered the safest in the world.

The power of the department and union safety representatives to shut down a potential risk mine is a key ingredient to maintaining that safety record.

Mine firms also have incredibly detailed procedures of their own - closely governed by legislation - including clear paths for workers to report anything resembling a danger.

For Mr Bell, reading monthly listings of near-misses and injuries underlines what is at stake when tens of thousands depend on you.

"We are the biggest coal exporting province in the world and we have a very low fatality rate," Mr Bell said.

"But if we are killing people, and we are, then (our safety) is not adequate.

"I don't have any reason for complacency. We need everyone coming home every day of the week and we have not gotten there.

"We're working on that every day."

Topics:  fatality mine safety mining sean scovell unions



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