South32 bosses say weeding out “cultural” problems in the Illawarra coal division is behind the turnover of many senior staff at the Appin mine.
But the miner has been accused of throwing the baby out with the bathwater, with senior figures saying the culture of safety among experienced veterans at the highly gassy mine has been vital to its safe operation.
South32 chief operating officer for Australia Paul Harvey spoke to the Mercury yesterday after we reported some senior figures were concerned standards would slip as experts left.
The mine’s general manager Greg Pawley is out after just a week on the job. Gas drainage and ventilation experts have also been shifted or quit, and management consultants IG Partners are running the mine.
The Mercury asked Mr Harvey what the “cultural” problem was.
“We’ve got some really talented people in that business,” Mr Harvey said. “There’s a lot of experience there – we’ve got members who have been there a long time. They know that business and they understand the risks and hazards really well.
“But there’s also some aspects [of] the way we’ve been working recently that we recognise we’ve got to do differently.
“The path we’re on is making sure we identify that leadership that’s going to uphold the values we’ve set for ourselves, the behaviours we expect to see in the workplace, the setting of standards, the non-tolerance for deviation and things like that.”
“During the course of the last couple of months we had a reality check. We recognised [with] the regulator that some aspects of how we were working we perhaps lost a bit of focus on. We got into a situation where we probably dropped standards, what we accepted. Now we need to take a step back and say some of the things that we allowed to happen, and that developed over time, drifted away from the standard we want, and we’re trying to reset that.”
The Mercury asked Mr Harvey several times whether he could guarantee there would be no drop in safety standards at the Appin mine in this “reset”.
Each time he responded he would not give such a guarantee.
“What I’d say is the only thing we’re doing is strengthening the capability of our team, not the opposite,” he said.
“All we’re doing is bringing in more expertise, greater levels of leadership, strong levels of accountability, and an absolutely unswerving focus on doing things safely, day in, day out,” he said. “We will not compromise that any way on any day.”
The “cultural issue” was named by CEO Graham Kerr when commenting after the reinstatement of sacked CFMEU union member Matthew Gosek. Mr Gosek was dismissed for harassment at South32’s Dendrobium mine after he accused eight co-workers of selling out a colleague, calling them “f--g dog, c--t and dog c—t”.
Commissioner Bernie Riordan said "f---g c---t" was a common expression "across all walks of life in society" and his colleagues "work in a coalmine – not a convent" where the use of inappropriate language had been condoned for "at least five years".
He also considered Mr Gosek's behaviour was mitigated by mental health issues and alcohol abuse.
South32 is appealing against the reinstatement.
But the recent angst at Appin has been over the removal or departure of senior figures in management and gas drainage, including the mine’s general manager Greg Pawley who was gone after a week in the job.
One long-time mine worker said the destabilisation caused by sudden and unexplained management shifts was creating cultural problems rather than solving them.
“He’s creating a cultural problem at the place,” he said.
“I’ve never seen a place as dysfunctional in the country.”
In a message sent to staff this Friday, South32 acting vice-president of operations for Illawarra mines Lucas Dow acknowledged the “disruption” caused by the management changes.
He said the changes were necessary to improve the mine and he had already seen positive results, including “revised processes, systems and controls”.
- With additional reporting from the Australian Financial Review.
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