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  Issue No 35 Official Organ of LaborNet 15 October 1999  





Death in the Snowy

By Elizabeth Dixon

Beyond the engineering achievements of the Snowy Mountains Scheme, there is the tragic story of those workers killed or seriously injured in the construction of the project.


Safety in the building of the Snowy Mountains Scheme was the subject of a NOHSC research study undertaken By Fergus Robinson, an occupational health and safety officer at the Victorian Master Builders' Association, who contributed this article to WORKSAFE news to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Scheme this month.

The Snowy Mountains Scheme has the distinction of being the most complex, multi-purpose, multi-reservoir hydro scheme in the world with its 80 kilometres of aqueducts, 140 kilometres of tunnels, 16 large dams and seven power stations, two of which are underground. The project commenced under an Act of Federal Parliament in October 1949 with the objective of diverting the Murrumbidgee, Snowy and Tumut Rivers in southwestern NSW in order to provide irrigation water for the western side of the Great Dividing Range, and in the process to generate hydro-electric power.

Fourteen major contractors and consortiums were engaged on the project. These included French and US companies as well as Australian. Thiess Bros Pty Ltd, Australia, had the highest value contract.

During the course of the construction over approximately 22 years, at total of 100,000 workers were employed, of whom 121 lost their lives in industrial accidents. Those workers were Australian-born, German, Greek, Irish, Italian, Norwegian, British, Polish and Yugoslav.

Causes of fatalities

The most fatalities (26) were caused by accidents involving operating plant such as bulldozers, haul trucks, cranes and tournapulls (a four-wheel vehicle similar to a grader or front-end loader). These fatalities can be attributed to three main causes:

1. Intense around the clock operation of heavy earthmoving equipment in difficult terrain and weather conditions at the various dam sites.

2. Inadequate servicing and maintenance of vehicle equipment.

3. Extensive deployment of tournapulls. The steering mechanism of these vehicles was operated by a switch which was prone to cut out at low revs. This mode of operation left the driver vulnerable to running off the road.

The second worst category of fatalities was rock falls with 14 deaths due to the individual fall of rocks during tunnelling, followed by tunnel locomotive accidents (13), road accidents to and from worksites (11), objects dropping onto workers (11) and explosions (10). Eight workers were killed due to the failure of non-vehicular mechanical equipment or being in unsafe proximity to unguarded machinery.

Commitment to safety

Evidence suggests that safety performance overall on the Snowy Mountains Scheme was better than its counterparts overseas. The often quoted American target of no more than one person killed per mile of tunnelling was improved on the Snowy Project with an overall underground death rate of 0.6 of a fatality per mile of tunnelling.

The better performance of the Snowy Scheme can be attributed to three factors. First, the relatively high premium placed on human life in Australian workplaces, predicated upon strong democratic traditions and the historical influence of trade unionism which simply did not permit the acceptance of a fatality rate which mirrored overseas practice.

Second, the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Authority (SMHEA), as a government agency, accepted responsibility for OHS on the project and saw itself as accountable to the wider community for Project safety performance. Third, the Commissioner of the SMHEA, Sir William Hudson, was genuinely sensitive to the occurrence of fatalities.

The SMHEA undertook both practical and educative measures to reduce the incidence of deaths and serious injuries on the contractors' projects. In 1961, Sir William established the Snowy Mountains Joint Safety and Rehabilitation Council. A safety adviser was appointed and a part time Working Committee, which included the safety officers of all member organisations, met on a regular basis. A policy of occupational health had a high degree of formal prominence on the Snowy Mountains Scheme. Safety induction training and supervisory safety training were introduced, safety films were produced and tool box meetings were held.

Even given the limitations of the technology available at the time, with proper planning and a pre-eminent concern for the safety of the workforce, the fatality and serious injury rate on the Snowy Project could have been drastically reduced. By today's standards, the failure of the safety program lay in the fact that the theory was not translated into practice.

One Snowy veteran, a former tournapull operator, described the work atmosphere on the Project as follows:

Physically, working on the Snowy Scheme was similar to being on war footing. I was familiar with this situation after having lived through heavy bombing as a child during the war. On the job, the Snowy was very much a 'peacetime version' of imminent danger and the will to survive.

Comparison with today

In drawing comparisons between the construction practice on the Snowy Mountains Scheme and similar work undertaken today, it can be reasonably asserted that more recent civil engineering work is significantly safer than the experiences of the two and a half decades of the postwar period.

A similar example is the construction of the Bullocks Flat to Blue Cow (Perisher) Ski Tube by the consortium Kumagai Transfield. Not one fatality was recorded in the period of construction from October 1984 to March 1988. Superior technology was used with the 6.3 kilometre tunnel excavated using a 5.5 metre tunnel boring machine from the Bullock Portal to the Perisher terminal (approximately 3.5 km). For the remaining distance to Blue Cow (approximately 2.8 km), traditional drill and blast methods were used.

Certainly, new technology has reduced the level of risk and this in turn has effected a higher level of OHS expectations. However, there have also been qualitative changes in the way occupational health and safety has been viewed, not only by those in the construction industry but also by the community at large. Simply put, it is no longer acceptable for employers to entertain in the conception of major projects the prospect of a single fatality or multiple serious injuries.

Order your copy/copies of this special issue of WORKSAFE news, published by the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission, by contacting Elizabeth Dixon at mailto:[email protected] Subscriptions are free.

About the Research

Fergus Robinson completed his research under the auspices of Dr. Richard Broome from the La Trobe University History Department between 1994 and 1997. The study involved analysis of all the coroners' inquest reports; interviews and questionnaires involving former Snowy employees; an examination of accident data and statistics from one major contractor and a review of all the available archival material both from the Snowy Mountains Hydro Electric Authority and the state and national archives

For further information please contact Fergus Robinson on phone (03) 9411 4521, fax (03) 9411 4592 or email [email protected]


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 35 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Strategic Responses
NSW Police Association president Mark Burgess has worked in the coal mines and the waterfront - now he’s the public face of NSW police
*  Republic: Negative Campaigning
If the Republic fails, one of the main complaints which should be leveled against the ARM is its refusal to play dirty.
*  Unions: Interpreter smooths the way for Kosovar Refugees
“The people really appreciate what Australia has done for them but they still want to go home," said Ariana Biba, a HREA member who has been worked recently as an interpreter assisting newly arrived refugees from Kosovo.
*  Education: Count Yorga's Evil Plot
NTEU president Carolyn Allport looks at Kemp's brazen attack on univestities and warns the battle is not won yet.
*  Safety: Death in the Snowy
Beyond the engineering achievements of the Snowy Mountains Scheme, there is the tragic story of those workers killed or seriously injured in the construction of the project.
*  International: Why Is the WTO So Anti-Labour?
Driving the cost of labour down appears to be the main priority of the World Trade Organisation
*  History: The Importance of Tradition
Historical documents bring us into closer contact with the past and its concerns as this 1945 extract from the NSW Nurses Association journal, The Lamp, shows.
*  Review: McLibel - The Mice That Roared
This documentary is the classic tale of the little guys against the system, a battle for the right to dissent.
*  Satire: Government Privatises Numbers
Prime Minister John Howard released a new policy on numerals yesterday, to bring them in in line with the Liberal Party's plan to privatise “Pretty much everything before we lose office.”

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