LEAD Action News
LEAD Action News vol 11 Number 2, December 2010, ISSN 1324-6011
Incorporating Lead Aware Times (ISSN 1440-4966) & Lead Advisory Service News (ISSN 1440-0561)
The journal of The LEAD (Lead Education and Abatement Design) Group Inc.
Guest Editor, Dr Chrissie Pickin. Editor-in-Chief: Anne Roberts

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Union concerns about Rosebery heavy metals

Interview with Dr Yossi Berger, Director of the Australian Workers Union’s
National Occupational Health and Safety Unit

By Dr Chrissie Pickin, Deputy Director, Tasmanian Department of Health and Human Services

Dr Berger, does the AWU have concerns about lead and other metal levels in Rosebery?

“Yes. In four ways:

First, exactly what are any related occupational risks, currently and prospectively?

Second, the geographic area is highly mineralised; what implications does that have to any matters of possible exposure?

Third, are there - or were there historically - any levels of release from the mine (or any mines) and its processes (or works) that may increase risk?

Fourth, in which ways – if any – may the above matters affect people in the community?

However, to date, by far, most measurements and monitoring we’ve seen have not set off any alarms. Though there are a number of contamination-related matters, we’re keeping a watching brief on, e.g. some tank water contamination, some residential ‘hot spots’.”

The allegations of heavy metal poisoning of Rosebery residents have received widespread exposure and caused some alarm. Does the union have a position on those allegations?

“Our position is that all such comments must be treated with dignity and respect. The relevant questions must be openly asked and discussed, and the people reporting ill effects and anxiety given many opportunities to express their views. They should be helped to say their piece and present any evidence they deem important. They should be encouraged by experts and scientists to clearly express their concerns; it’s not easy to be articulate about uncertainties. But, in the end, some reasonable evidence will have to be presented and evaluated; we need to agree what constitutes fair evidence in a generous sense.”

The mine workforce faces a higher risk of exposure. Is the union satisfied with the levels recorded by mine workers?

“Your statement is an assumption…reasonable, but an assumption. That is, just because workers are working with or close to any hazards does not mean that they are, in fact, exposed more or even at greater risk of such exposure. And that’s because there are very stringent OHS laws related to such hazards; it depends just how carefully such laws and regulations are being applied daily and supervised. However, it’s true that it’s a continuing concern and without special precautions (added and more stringent), your statement would be worryingly true. No, I’m not satisfied with levels recorded, but these are levels most of which are below expected ‘safe’ standards. The monitoring levels at present are surprisingly low, but any blood level of lead is – in my view – a concern, even if within suggested exposure standards. But then that’s my starting position, a stringent and precautionary OHS position.”

Has MMG responded adequately to the concerns which have been raised?

“Yes. But for my liking they still don’t quite understand what good and continuing consultation (and constructive scepticism) is all about; not a new phenomenon in Australian Occupational Health and Safety.”

Are there any areas which need improvement?

“Much more accurate and inclusive consultation with the union (as a knowledgeable representative of the workers) on OHS matters. And this is for obvious reasons.”

Can you make a comparison between how MMG has dealt with these types of safety issues, compared with previous owners?

“The previous owners were very similar in their approach to OHS matters.”

Although exposure levels among workers appear to be within the accepted guidelines, is there a case for the NHMRC to reduce target levels further?

“Yes! More than 50 percent of all ‘safe’ exposure levels (for significant industrial chemicals) have been shown to be wrong over the years, and at times by orders of magnitudes. But industry and regulators don’t effectively understand that the lessons of history are also objective facts; note the tragic history of all forms of asbestos, organochlorines or the more current issues with organophosphates or endosulfan.”

MMG says it has the support of its workforce for the programs it has introduced. Is that what the union hears from workers? Are they satisfied with the company's handling of the matter?

“Yes, it’s what we hear from workers. But we’d prefer a greater access to these workers at their tasks. When it comes to OHS, we remain cynical and very cautious. This does not mean we’re destructive about all this.”

How difficult is it to balance safety issues with the need to maintain the mine, and therefore employment, at Rosebery?

“Not at all. We take the position that all these workers are someone’s children, and just as you’d bend over backwards to look after someone’s children so you should for any worker, anywhere, anytime. This does, at times, create difficult situations, e.g. long shiftwork hours, but the AWU – through me – has taken the position that I’d rather see a worker unemployed for 10 years than dead for 10 seconds!

From the union's perspective, how does the Rosebery mine's operations and safety standards compare to other mining towns around Australia?

“So far as we can tell, it’s good in a number of ways. But see the comments above about more accurate consultation. I remain uneasy.”

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