Western Australia is a big place. The UK would fit into WA 10.4 times and even Texas would fit 8.3 times. Every year WA seems to produce some equally ‘big’ weather event. While for most of us in Perth the only extreme weather we need to deal with is a run of 40-plus degree days (which makes the air conditioned comfort of work very appealing), for some remote workers an extreme weather event can be a significant workplace health and safety issue.
With Tropical Cyclone Iggy lurking off the Pilbara coast, the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union called an emergency meeting with Fair Work Australia seeking the urgent evacuation of 2,000 workers from the $43 billion Gorgon LNG project on Barrow Island, located about 70 kilometres offshore before it became too dangerous to fly. The Gorgon Project – a joint venture to develop the Greater Gorgon Area gas fields, which contain some 40 trillion cubic feet of gas – will be the biggest resources project in Australia’s history, as well as the single largest investment of its kind in the world. But all of that means nothing to a tropical cyclone the likes of Iggy, which can reach gusts of up to 280 kilometres an hour and dump enough water when it hits land to cause widespread flooding and destruction.
Undaunted, Gorgon operator, Chevron, rejected the union’s concerns about safety and the majority of workers have remained on the island albeit under the company’s ‘cyclone readiness plans’, which include the evacuation of non-essential personnel, the tying down of equipment to secure sites, and the suspension of construction activity. Western Australia’s occupational safety and health laws require all employers to have adequate plans in place and to provide adequate training to protect workers in the event of a cyclone.
The union’s concerns cannot be considered too alarmist given events in March 2007 when Cyclone George struck an accommodation village for remote workers in the Pilbara. Two workers died and a large number were seriously injured when the dongas they were sheltering in were severely damaged by the winds that blasted the camp. Following the prosecution of some of the employers whose workers were accommodated at the camp, it was found that the dongas were not built to withstand cyclones and that workers had not been properly trained on how to prepare for and protect themselves from cyclones.
Another recent example of the weather impacting (putting it mildly) on the health and safety of a worker involves a traffic controller who is seeking compensation over claims that he was struck by lightning when made to work through a storm. The man was working on the Mid West Rail venture when the storm hit. He says that his team was told by management to ‘keep rolling’ despite the pelting rain and lightning strikes. Next thing he knew, he had been thrown up in the air and flat on his back, blinded in both eyes and paralysed down the right side of his body. He was taken to a local nursing post which discharged him with two pain relief tablets, which may have been a bit light given his subsequent claims that the incident left him shaking uncontrollably for two days and feeling suicidal ever since.