SIMON Turner is the human face of the coal industry gone wrong.
A keen sportsman who joined the industry seeking a career change in 2012, he began as a contract mine worker at BHP Billiton’s Mount Arthur open-cut coalmine.
After a brief period of union membership, Mr Turner dropped out of the main mining union, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, believing it was doing nothing to help the fortunes of contract mine workers like him.
He agitated for change at the mine early last year, when the Newcastle Herald was reporting big pay gaps – which the CFMEU now confirms are as high as 30 per cent to 40 per cent – between BHP employees and contractors doing the same work at Mount Arthur.
He was still fighting the system late last year when an accident at the mine changed his life forever.
At 11.20am on Saturday, December 12, he was sitting in his dump truck at the mine when it was hit by the bucket of a coal excavator. Mr Turner said he was thrown across the cabin of his truck and slammed into the door beside him.
Reporting pins and needles in one arm and pain in his lower back, he was taken to Muswellbrook Hospital, given pain killers and returned to work.
But as an investigation by the state government’s mining inspectorate has confirmed, Mr Turner’s accident was never reported to authorities.
The contract company he worked for, Chandler Macleod, and the BHP Billiton subsidiary Mount Arthur Coal treated the accident as “a first aid case”.
Mr Turner said he complied with company requests not to have time off work, so as to keep the mine’s lost-time injury record as low as possible.
But as the inspectorate’s investigation of the accident confirms, Mr Turner remained in pain after the accident, and was treated by a doctor and a physiotherapist. Two weeks after the accident, he went to Lake Macquarie Private Hospital, where an MRI scan revealed “a swollen disk L4 to L5, a pinched nerve and a stress fracture” of one of his vertebrae. Speaking to the Herald, Mr Turner said he had endured two rounds of spinal surgery, and now doctors were suggesting a spinal block – a path he does not want to take.
He is in constant pain, and having weaned himself off the narcotics Endone and Oxycontin he was prescribed earlier this year, unwilling to go back on to them.
A representative baseballer and a golfer with a plus 2 handicap as a younger man, Mr Turner says his life has been ruined by the accident. He may never work again. But this is not all.
Mr Turner and his lawyers are in a running battle with Chandler Macleod and its insurer, CGU, to have him paid what they say are the proper rates of workers’ compensation, as well as the accident pay that Chandler’s says it does not have to pay because Mr Turner was a casual employee. During this battle, Mr Turner found that Chandler McLeod had claimed to have sacked him in the first week of January, although he says he was never told at the time, and the paperwork declaring it was not filled out until May.
Complicating matters, Mr Turner’s case is caught in a dispute between contractors like Chandler McLeod and the CFMEU over the definitions of such basic terms as coal miners and mining companies.
Until recently, the coal industry had one workers’ compensation insurer, Coal Mines Insurance, a subsidiary of Coal Services (formerly the Joint Coal Board), which is in turn owned 50/50 by the CFMEU and the Minerals Council of NSW.
But using two Supreme Court precedents, companies such as Chandler Macleod, which provide labour to various industries, have been able to argue that they are not coal companies as such, enabling them to use the broader NSW workers’ compensation system.
The CFMEU’s district president, Peter Jordan, says the court decisions mean “Chandler Macleod is currently not considered an employer in the NSW coal industry”.
He says it does have to pay accident pay for up to 78 weeks, however, and argues that if Mr Turner had been a member of the CFMEU, the union would have taken this dispute up for him.
Chandler Macleod said it complied with all of its return-to-work obligations and remained “properly insured for workers’ compensation, and our insurer complies with any coal mine specific schemes in operation”.
Noting Mr Turner had “engaged lawyers to act for him . . . and that our lawyers and workers’ compensation insurer are also involved”, the company said it was not appropriate to make further comment.
It also said it had “maintained Mr Turner’s casual employment, although he is currently not working” – despite documents viewed by the Herald stating he was dismissed on January 7.
BHP declined to comment on “on any individual’s situation” but said Mount Arthur complied with the NSW Workplace Injury Management and Workers Compensation Act and had an injury management and rehabilitation scheme that applied to employees and contractors alike.
The mining inspectorate wrote to Mr Turner saying it had “taken action” against Mount Arthur Coal for not reporting his”incident” by serving an “improvement notice” on the company “requiring action to ensure that notifiable accidents . . . are reported”.
NSW Greens MLC David Shoebridge has been following Mr Turner’s case for some time, and sees it as “a very clear demonstration of the impact of lower coal prices on the coal industry in the Hunter Valley”.
“Not only has Simon missed out on his basic wages and conditions, but once he was injured he faced a series of further hurdles from reporting his injury to getting the right compensation payments,” Mr Shoebridge said.
“Anyone who took the time could see how desperate his situation was, that's why we took up his case and called for intervention from the authorities.”
Tomorrow: The broader industrial situation at Mount Arthur.