"Back off" call to death inquiry
Three horrific deaths in as many weeks have prompted the WA Government to bow to an Australian Manufacturing Workers' Union (AMWU) demand for an independent safety audit of BHP Billiton's Pilbara operations. Now the union's State Secretary, Jock Ferguson, is asking vested interests, including the minerals giant, to "back off" and let Pilbara people have their say. Mr Ferguson criticised BHP Billiton for tying the future of its Boodarie hot briquette iron plant, which employs 500 people, to the outcome of the investigation. He said a public statement, made by BHP's iron ore division of President Graeme Hunt "cast a shadow" over the inquiry and potential witnesses whose families were dependent on the plant's continued operation. Mr Ferguson challenged BHP to commit itself to the hot briquette operation before the inquiry opened. His criticism followed claims from Port Hedland that safety had "plumetted" since BHP tried to drive unions out of its operations and used individual work employment contracts (AWAs) to create a climate where production took precedence over safety (see Guardian #1184). The call for an inquiry followed the May 2 death of 26-year-old AMWU delegate, Cory Bentley, who was crushed in an early morning incident at the company's Port Hedland iron ore facility. A mass meeting, attended by Jock Ferguson and ACTU Pilbara organiser, Will Treacey, demanded an independent review as company reps started removing posters that exhorted employees to "aim high, move fast" and which graphically illustrate how far they had fallen behind the million-tonne targets set by the company. Mr Treacey said Bentley's death came after a number of "near fatalities" and a matter of hours after workers had notified the company of safety shortcomings. Last week, a gas explosion at the nearby hot briquette plant, saw Royal Flying Doctor Service aircraft from Derby, Meekatharra and Port Hedland mobilised to transport injured workers to hospitals. The same day, a 19-year-old apprentice had his head crushed by a "piece of equipment" at the company's Iron Ore Body 25, operated by Henry Walker Eltin, near Newman. Ross McKinnon died over the weekend, as did one of the four burned workers rushed to Perth. Medics said AMWU member, James Wadley, had failed to survive burns to 95 percent of his body. Two other men injured at the hot briquette plant are still in Royal Perth Hospital with burns to 70 and 80 percent of their bodies. On the eve of discussions with State Development Minister, Clive Brown, AMWU State Secretary Jock Ferguson indicated that he would consult the people directly affected before laying down what the union wanted in the inquiry's terms of reference. "We are in touch with delegates, safety reps and communities in the Pilbara and will be guided by their advice", he said. "These are the people who know what's happening and the things that need to change. "What we will be insisting on is an environment that encourages them to participate without fearing for their jobs or futures."