Lessons from Gretley

Disaster struck at Gretley coal mine near Newcastle in November 1996. Miners inadvertently broke through into the flooded tunnels of an abandoned mine, and a wall of water rushed in with enormous force. A mining machine, weighing nearly 50 tonnes, was pushed 18 metres along the tunnel, until it jammed sideways. Four men were swept to their deaths.

The Gretley disaster provoked an unprecedented legal response. Three mine Officials the current mine manager, a former manager at the mine, and the mine surveyor were convicted and heavily fined. Never before in Australia had managers been held accountable in the way that the Gretley managers were, and the convictions sent shock waves through Australian industry. Did this mean that all Australian managers were now at risk of prosecution when workers were killed?' The convictions triggered a strenuous campaign by employer groups against the legislation and, at the time of writing, the New South Wales Government had still not decided how to respond. The Gretley prosecution may therefore turn out to have been an exceptional event, brought about by an exceptional set of circumstances. On the other hand, there is widespread support for holding directors and managers more accountable for safety, and the Gretley prosecution may herald a new era in this respect.

Whether the prosecution was an anomaly, as employers hope, or a turning point, as unions hope, it is certainly worthy of attention. It lays bare the workings of the legal system in response to workplace fatalities and it raises in an acute way a number of issues about the legal system's role in encouraging workplace safety. It forces us to think about the meaning of justice and the purposes of the criminal justice system. It poses questions about the culpability of individual managers when things go wrong. It ranks with the prosecution of Esso (following its gas plant explosion at Longford) as one of the landmark cases in Australian OHS law (Hopkins, 2002). This introduction aims to identify, in a little more detail, the themes that this book will pursue.