Hazelwood mine fire a lesson to collaborate and communicate

By Stephen Easton

September 3, 2014

The final report of the inquiry into the Hazelwood mine fire is filled with lessons for public servants — chiefly the need to provide the public with consistent, timely, concise and accurate messages during an emergency, and ensuring knowledge is transferred between agencies as responsibilities are handed over.

The report refers to two government bodies — the Earth Resources Regulation Branch of the Department of State Development, Business and Innovation, which regulates mining, and the Earth Resources Unit of the Victorian WorkCover Authority — which were “operating in silos”.

Both bodies “adopted a narrow reading of the statutory regime underlying their respective areas of responsibility”, the inquiry found. This resulted in a loss of knowledge following the transfer of responsibilities for fire risk at the Hazelwood mine from the mining regulator to the WorkCover authority at the beginning of 2008:

“The combination of these factors resulted in a gap in regulation of the Hazelwood mine in respect of fire risks with the potential to impact on Morwell and surrounding communities, such as that which manifested in 2014. The Hazelwood mine fire was a foreseeable risk that slipped through the cracks between regulatory agencies. This reality must be confronted if similar incidents are to be avoided in the future.”

The inquiry found that WorkCover put too much focus on “administrative or procedural compliance” with occupational health and safety laws when, in the board’s view, “effective regulation must focus on substance rather than form”.

The report adds that WorkCover ignored “entirely foreseeable” risks to the community of Morwell that did not necessarily place workers in mortal danger, as its overall strategy was to focus its limited resources on “hazards that represent the greatest risk of multiple worker fatalities”. From the report:

“The principle underlying the OHS regime is that the primary obligation to manage risk at a work site rests with the employer. There are necessary constraints on how a government agency can allocate its resources, particularly when VWA is responsible for 250,000 Victorian workplaces. However, the Hazelwood mine fire has demonstrated that there are consequences of real import where the approach to regulation is overly passive.”

In considering fire risk management through land use planning at a regional level, the inquiry report suggests the mining regulator is responsible for the lack of a buffer zone between the mine and Morwell:

“The implementation of the buffer zone requirements post-date the approval (in the 1940s) of a new open cut mine adjacent to Morwell. The Latrobe City Council is powerless to enforce any buffer zone within the boundaries of the mine licence. Under legislation, this is the province of the Mining Regulator.”

As for the emergency services, the inquiry found no issue with how the Country Fire Authority deployed its resources on February 9, when the mine fire was sparked by flying embers from nearby bushfires and continued to burn for 45 days. But the inquiry recommends that emergency services improve how they communicate and co-ordinate resources with operators of essential industries, like GDF Suez, through a single incident management team during major fires.

The report also found “significant shortcomings” on the part of both GDF Suez and government authorities when it came to communicating with the people of Morwell. This included a “lack of co-ordination among the agencies involved” as well as “confusing messages, with agencies appearing to contradict each other” and a significant disconnect between what the community was being told and what they were experiencing. The inquiry found that:

“A major factor contributing to the community’s disengagement was the state’s initial mischaracterisation of the mine fire as simply a fire emergency, when in fact it evolved into a chronic technological disaster. It then became a significant and lengthy environmental and health crisis.

“Unfortunately, communication responses overall did not reflect international best practice for crisis communication. Communication did not reach many people in a timely way and in some cases, not at all. Communication was largely one-way with information being transmitted, but not received or understood by the intended recipients. An over-reliance on digital technology, particularly early on, hindered the message reaching all community members. Empathy was also often lacking, particularly from some government spokespeople.”

The board recommends that government bodies “deploy community relations specialists during an emergency to work with previously identified trusted networks and act as an interface between communities and the providers of information and services”.

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