Shoddy structures led to workers’ deaths during West Australian cyclone

Official investigations are still continuing into the deaths of three people, including two mining workers, and injuries of 28 others, in a category 4 cyclone (on a scale of 5) that hit the northwest coast of Western Australia on March 9.

The casualties and destruction left by the storm laid bare some of the poor working and living conditions that lie beneath the “resources boom” in the Pilbara region, which currently generates billions of dollars per year in export revenue.

Debra Till, 47, kitchen hand and mother of two, died at a railway mine camp owned by Fortescue Mining Group (FMG), after she sustained fatal injuries when the temporary structure where she was sheltering was battered in the storm, with winds reaching 275 kilometres per hour.

The second worker who perished was Craig Allan Raabe, 42, a father of two from Queensland. He had come to the region to earn money to assist his handicapped child back in Queensland. He received extensive head wounds and was flown to a Perth hospital but did not survive. The third person killed was Sydney Baker, 74, who suffered massive internal injuries at Indee Station near the FMG camp site.

The FMG workers are building a railway line for the company’s $3.7 billion iron ore project, which FMG is under pressure to complete before March 2008, when its first export shipments are scheduled. The railway construction site is some 1,200 kilometres north of Perth, the capital of Western Australia, and about 100 kilometres from Port Hedland, one of the major outlets for the region’s iron ore and natural gas shipments.

A Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) spokesman described Cyclone George as “the most powerful system to hit Port Hedland in at least three decades”. But cyclones are predictable in the region, which experiences at least five per year, according to the weather bureau.

Despite “red alert” warnings issued by BOM, giving Fortescue 17 hours to take rescue measures, FMG refused to evacuate the 300 people on site. The company claimed there had been many storms before and that the buildings were safe. It defended its “safety procedure,” which consisted of telling workers to stay in their temporary accommodation huts, known as “dongas”.

Most of the workers were inexperienced with cyclones. They had come from the eastern states of Australia, lured to the region by the prospect of high earnings.

There had been ample time and facilities for FMG to move workers out. One worker said up to 80 vehicles, including trucks, could have transported people out of danger. After the cyclone hit, however, rescue workers could not get to the dying and injured for many hours. Crews had to be flown in when weather conditions improved. Medical teams came from Perth and Karratha.

It has since been revealed that the “dongas” were not cyclone-proof as first claimed by Fortescue’s executive director Andrew Forrest. After attempting to protect the company by declaring, “we only use the best contractors” to install the huts, he refused to verify if they had been designed to withstand a category 5 cyclone.

A worker who had helped administer first aid to the victims, despite his own injuries, described how the dongas were strewn over the site. Medical supplies were also destroyed, forcing him to improvise with makeshift supplies when attending victims. There was no emergency medical unit on the site to cater for cyclones.

On the www.news.com.au/perthnow website (see “latest audio and video”), workers produced a home video showing them working prior to the cyclone. There is also footage of the dongas being destroyed and thrown across the site.

Photos taken after the cyclone show that the huts were not even tied down or welded to their bases. To withstand a cyclone of this intensity, huts must be attached to concrete bases buried deep in the ground.

The Australian Workers Union (AWU) belatedly declared that the company should have evacuated workers sooner and that the dongas did not meet safety standards. This raised the obvious question: why hadn’t the union objected earlier to the lack of basic safety?

It also appears the local municipal council approved the structures but no one inspected the installation, to see that the huts would withstand a major cyclone.

The state’s Labor Premier, Alan Carpenter, said, “the safety requirements of accommodation in the state’s north may have to be looked at”. This would hardly engender any confidence among workers, who have already had this fact tragically confirmed. Carpenter admitted that the company had not provided accommodation that could withstand a category 3 cyclone, contradicting the claims of FMG’s chief.

Nevertheless, the state police were quick to divert any discussion away from company culpability. Police Commissioner Graeme Lienart suggested that the cyclone was simply an unlucky act of Mother Nature, saying: “This is just one of these tragedies where the cyclone has sustained its intensity; it is one of those unpredictable things”.

The company announced it would organise an investigation, alongside those involving the police and WorkSafe (part of the state government’s Department of Consumer and Employment Protection). One of FMG management’s motivations for wanting a swift investigation is to get production back on schedule. CEO Forrest warned on March 14 that the company might not meet its March 2008 deadline for having iron ore on ships.

FMG is also attempting to backtrack. Initially, Forrest said he took full responsibility for what occurred and FMG would compensate the families of the dead and injured. Facing legal action from families, however, he has admitted no liability and instead defended the company’s decision not to evacuate.

Forrest, a billionaire, is a close friend and political associate of Prime Minister John Howard and also a client of former state Labor premier Brian Burke, who is a lobbyist for corporate interests, as well as for the AWU and other unions.

The Pilbara region is often referred to as the economic “engine room” of the Australian economy because of the massive profits it generates. Clearly, these billions are more precious to the mining companies than the lives of their employees.