Under the Occupational Health and Safety Act 2004 (Vic) (OHS Act) an employer must (as far as reasonably practicable) provide and maintain a working environment that is safe and without risks to health.44 Section 23 of the OHS Act imposes a similar duty on employers to safeguard people other than employees including volunteers whose health and safety is affected by the conduct of the employer’s undertaking. This can be a difficult task when the nature of the employment places employees in hazardous situations, such as a mine fire.

The Victorian WorkCover Authority (VWA) is responsible for ensuring that employers provide a safe working environment for employees and other people on a worksite. In 2009, VWA undertook a risk ranking prioritisation of all mine sites in Victoria. Hazelwood mine was ranked as one of the highest risk sites.45

The Safe Work Australia Hazardous Substances Information System lists carbon monoxide as a hazardous substance. However there is no general ambient air quality standard contained in the OHS Act.46 The workplace exposure standard for carbon monoxide is an eight-hour time weighted average of 30 ppm.47 The exposure standard assumes that the level of 30 ppm is equivalent to a five per cent carboxyhaemoglobin level in the blood.48

On 11 February 2014, VWA attended the Hazelwood mine to investigate if the worksite provided a safe environment for the mine employees, firefighters and other visitors to the mine. The focus of this visit was on the stability of the batters. However, VWA observed that there was a carbon monoxide monitoring procedure in place.49

On 13 February 2014, VWA was notified that a firefighter at the mine had been exposed to carbon monoxide. A VWA occupational hygienist was sent to the mine the next day and observed the application of the Draft Carbon Monoxide Regional Operating Procedure. It was determined that the system of work at the mine reduced so far as reasonably practicable, the risk to firefighters from carbon monoxide exposure.50

VWA Incident inspectors were sent to the mine again on 21 February 2014 after receiving further notifications of carbon monoxide exposure (that had occurred on 10 February 2014). VWA considered that the work system in place was appropriate and that it was more robust than that observed at the site visit on 14 February 2014 because procedures were now formally documented.51

In addition to the concerns about carbon monoxide exposure and water contamination, the UFU indicated that its members had concerns about:

  • supervision of firefighters when fighting the mine fire, including the availability of maps and guides within the mine
  • amenities provided at the mine and equipment available to the firefighters, including the ability for decontamination and the maintenance of clean/dirty areas
  • the availability and practicality of breathing apparatus provided to the firefighters
  • fatigue, staffing levels, crewing of appliances and safety officers/sector commanders deployed during the mine fire
  • communication between firefighters, the CFA/MFB and the mine operator.52

The UFU submitted to the Board that it should make 12 recommendations arising from the concerns of its members.53 These included recommendations concerning exposure to carbon monoxide, testing of water used during the firefighting efforts, issues around staffing and decontamination procedures, and that the MFB and CFA be audited to ascertain whether they had complied with obligations under the OHS Act.54 Some of the UFU’s proposed recommendations have been addressed in this report, while others are beyond the scope of the Inquiry’s Terms of Reference.

The UFU raised concerns with VWA about firefighters being exposed to carbon monoxide. VWA is investigating this complaint.55 The Board has been provided with no further details about the VWA investigation.