Since 2015, Queensland’s resources industry has been shaken by the re-emergence of dust lung diseases, largely among the State’s large coal mining workforce.  So far, more than 130 workers have been diagnosed with incurable forms of lung disease across Australia, resulting in 6 Queensland deaths in the past 12 months.[1] The State Government has responded to the outbreak with a raft of reforms designed to identify the risk, support affected workers and enhance prevention, detection and reporting.

With a range of reforms implemented, Queensland has now turned to ongoing regulation of the industry with the introduction of the new Resources Safety and Health Queensland Bill 2019 (RSHQ Bill) into the Legislative Assembly.

The introduction of the RSHQ Bill stems from 68 recommendations made by the Coal Workers’ Pneumoconiosis Select Committee in Queensland.  During the review, other deadly dust diseases were identified as also requiring a regulatory response.

The Committee made a range of recommendations, including that the Queensland Government should establish an independent regulatory body to regulate the Workplace Health and Safety in the resources sector.  Currently, this responsibility rests with the Department of Natural Resources, Mines and Energy (DNRME) and sits separately from the Regulator under the Work Health and Safety Act 2011 (Qld) (WHS Act).  The Committee’s recommendation, which will be implemented by the RSHQ Bill, seeks to implement a degree of independence in the area of safety and health regulation, from other government functions.

Who is affected?

If implemented, the RSHQ Bill will affect all stakeholders in the resources industry.  Operations affected will include coal and other mining activities, quarrying, petroleum and gas and explosives.  Activities ancillary to those, such as transportation, will also be affected.

What are the key changes?

DNRME’s safety regulatory functions over the resources industry will be transferred to a newly established independent resources industry regulator and prosecutor, called Resources Safety and Health Queensland (RSHQ).  RSHQ will independently regulate health and safety in Queensland’s resources industries and this will include ancillary operations under the Resources Safety Legislation.[2]

Serious offences under the Resources Safety Legislation will be prosecuted by the WHS Prosecutor, who is appointed by the Regulator under the WHS Act.  Other offences may be prosecuted either by the WHS Prosecutor or by RSHQ.

The RSHQ Bill also establishes the role of RSHQ Commissioner, who acts as an adviser to the Minister and is responsible for:

  • chairing both the Coal Mining Safety and Health Advisory Committee and the Mining Safety and Health Advisory Committee;
  • engaging with stakeholders in the sector regarding the promotion and protection of safety and health; and
  • monitoring, reviewing and reporting to the Minister on RSHQ’s performance.

Why is this important?

The definition of “serious offences” under the RSHQ Bill is distinct from the classification of a serious offence under the WHS Act.

Under the RSHQ Bill, a “serious offence” is defined to include circumstances where a person contravenes their health and safety obligations and the contravention causes, bodily harm, grievous bodily harm, death, or the exposure of another person to a substance likely to cause death or grievous bodily harm.  These factors align with the circumstances of aggravation relevant to sentencing in the existing resources safety legislation.

The RSHQ Bill includes a process where any person can request that the WHS Prosecutor commence a prosecution, provided that they have a reasonable belief that a serious offence has occurred. The inclusion of this process in the RSHQ Bill means that third parties, including Unions and aggrieved workers or family members, will be provided with the opportunity to request that the WHS Prosecutor commence action.

This dual-system also means that some stakeholders will be required to engage with multiple specialist regulators and may have parallel reporting obligations to more than one regulator simultaneously.

What should I do now?

This Bill has only been recently introduced and has been referred to a legislative committee for further review and report by 18 October 2019.  Industry stakeholders should be aware of the possible changes (which are likely to commence in 2020), and we will keep you updated regarding the commencement of the RSHQ Bill as it progresses.

[1] Queensland, Parliamentary Debates, Legislative Assembly, 4 September 2019, 2638 (AJ Lynham Minister for Natural Resources, Mines and Energy).

[2] The Resources Safety Legislation includes the Coal Mining Safety and Health Act 1999, Mining and Quarrying Safety and Health Act 1999, Explosives Act 1999 and Petroleum and Gas (Production and Safety) Act 2004.

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