18 Jan 2014

Mining firm under scrutiny over deaths

10:55 am on 18 January 2014

Fortescue Metals Group is under fire over the deaths of two contractors and a string of safety breaches as investigators place the Australian company's operations under the microscope.

The world's fourth biggest iron ore miner has expanded rapidly on the back of strong Chinese steel demand, using a host of contracting companies to build and operate its iron ore operations in the Pilbara.

AAP reports unions and workers are worried about Fortescue's serious incident rate and some of the practices among its contractors.

Mine inspectors are carrying out multiple investigations into two deaths at Fortescue's Christmas Creek mine over the past six months and four incidents at the company's Solomon hub this month.

New Zealander Kurt Williams, 24, was killed at Christmas Creek mine in August last year while carrying out maintenance work in a crushing plant.

Two weeks ago a 33 year-old man died while carrying out maintenance on a large piece of mining machinery at Christmas Creek's heavy vehicle workshop, prompting the mining regulator to issue a special order to improve safety procedures at the mine. The man was employed by contractor Global Surface Mining.

WA Department of Mines and Petroleum (DMP) is carrying out two separate investigations at Christmas Creek following an incident last year in which a contractor had his leg amputated after a truck crash on a Fortescue site.

At the time the department suspended operations and ordered Fortescue to improve its safety procedures at all of its operations.

Kurt Williams mother, Aucklander Diane Andrew, said she was horrified to learn of another death at the same mine and is desperate for information from the investigation of her son's death.

"Has his death been in vain? At least if he had died and no more deaths were going to happen we could accept it. But the fact they are still happening and the injury, one boy lost his leg, there's something wrong with the safety," she told the ABC.

The DMP is also investigating incidents at Solomon in which three people were within a blast exclusion zone, two water truck incident reports, and an incident involving a tool carrier.

Unions raise safety concerns

Unions have highlighted Fortescue's use of contractors and say the safety culture has to change to prevent another death or serious injury.

"We want the full gamut of potential contributing factors to be examined in detail, including the replacement of experienced workers with cheaper alternatives," CFMEU Construction Division WA secretary Mick Buchan said.

Electrical Trades Union WA secretary Les McLaughlan has raised concerns about Crushing Services International's safety practices as employees worked on live equipment.

Fortescue is reviewing safety procedures and this week said it bought out Crushing Services International's (CSI) equipment to ensure the "safe and efficient operation" of the two ore processing facilities.

"This outcome will assist in ensuring cultural alignment among the valued personnel," Fortescue chief executive Nev Power said in a statement.

Mineral Resources Limited, the mining services company which employed Kurt Williams, said on Friday that Fortescue paid $A300 million to buy out its two crushing plants as it hired its local workforce.

Mr Power has previously said no one on a Fortescue site was expected to do anything that compromises safety.

A Department of Mines and Petroleum spokesperson says more than 500 workers per year suffer serious injuries on WA mines.