Rio Tinto accused of ‘cutting corners’ on safety amid mystery over executive’s departure
Production at a remote Rio Tinto mine site was temporarily suspended last week after a union investigation raised safety concerns at the operation.
- Production at Rio Tinto’s East Arnhem Land bauxite mine was paused due to issues with lighting at its ship-loading facility
- The site has been the centre of union and worker concerns over safety in recent months
- The NT EPA said it would contact Rio Tinto over reports of oil leaks in Nhulunbuy
Electrical Trades Union (ETU) delegates attended the mining giant’s Gove Operations bauxite mine where they discovered lighting was “definitely not up to standard” at the ship loading facility.
“On investigation, out at the wharf there we found there was absolute inadequate lighting throughout the whole area,” ETU Northern Territory organiser David Hayes said.
“We had to ask Rio Tinto to stop loading the ship at that time, so some measures to get lighting installed could happen.
“It’s absolutely extreme that we would have to go there with a company like Rio Tinto, who are a massive multinational organisation, who would put their workers in a high-risk work environment, and have them trudging around with no lights on, or very little lighting.”
The incident marks the latest in a string of safety issues at the East Arnhem Land mine site, including a crash which the company classed as a “potentially fatal incident” in late 2018.
In May, workers and union officials at the site raised fears the company was “cutting corners” with safety in order to meet increasingly arduous production targets.
The site has seen about a 35 per cent increase in production levels during the past two years, despite the size of the workforce remaining largely unchanged.
The Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union’s NT organiser Lloyd Pumpa said union members had been reporting a “steady decline” in safety at Gove Operations.
The company defended its standards, telling the ABC in a statement: “Safety is Rio Tinto’s first priority.”
Regarding the temporary shutdown last week, Rio Tinto said “all of our people are authorised to stop work when they see unsafe practices”.
“Rio Tinto elected to pause production on Wednesday 12 June 2019 in order to undertake works to improve lighting within a stairwell near essential production infrastructure,” a spokesman said.
‘Environmental and public safety concerns’
Mr Hayes also raised what he described as “environmental and public safety concerns” in the nearby township of Nhulunbuy, where many of the Rio Tinto workers and their families live.
A number of ageing electricity boxes around the town were leaking oil into the earth, he said.
“Up to 10 transformers around Nhulunbuy are leaking oil to ground and require topping up on a regular basis.
“The transformers are located in areas that are accessible to the public, one near a primary school and a childcare centre.
“Given their available resources and the size of their operation, are Rio Tinto acting in an environmentally responsible manner?
“[That’s] the question that I would ask.”
A spokesman for the Northern Territory’s Environmental Protection Authority said it would “contact Rio Tinto regarding the transformers” but had not previously been aware of the issue.
A Rio Tinto spokesman said the company was “currently upgrading some of the transformers within the town lease”.
“[Rio] is responsible for providing Nhulunbuy with a safe and reliable power supply and, in recent years, we have invested several million dollars in major capital upgrades to the power network,” the spokesman said.
The Gove alumina refinery was curtailed in 2014, which saw the loss of more than 1,000 workers from the region.
Around 300 workers remain employed at the Gove Operations bauxite mine, plus 150 contractors. The mine was predicted to be closed within the next five to 10 years.
The operation has also been in a state of management flux. Last month general manager Linda Murry left at short notice. Asset manager Garreth Smith also recently resigned from his position, Rio Tinto confirmed.