‘Fallen on deaf ears’: safety fears before mine tragedy

William Ton and Holly Hales |

The free miner was airlifted to hospital in a serious condition with lower body injuries.
The free miner was airlifted to hospital in a serious condition with lower body injuries.

A miner is dead and another is fighting for his life after an underground collapse at a Victorian mine that has been at the centre of union safety concerns.

Both men were pinned by fallen rocks at the Ballarat Gold Mine on Woolshed Gully Drive at Mount Clear, northwest of Melbourne, before 5pm on Wednesday.

The body of a 37-year-old man who died after the rockfall, and named in multiple media reports as Kurt Hourigan of Bruthen, was recovered about 6am on Thursday.

A second man, 21, was stabilised and taken out of the mine the night before with lower body injuries.

The Ballarat man was flown to the Alfred Hospital in Melbourne and remains in a life-threatening condition.

Another 29 miners who took refuge in a safety pod were also brought to the surface on Wednesday night.

The rockfall happened 500m underground and 3km from the mine’s entrance. 

Australian Workers Union Victoria state secretary Ronnie Hayden said it was devastating that a worker had lost their life and claimed other employees had flagged concerns about safety at the mine.

“It seems to have fallen on deaf ears,” he said. 

The two workers were undertaking a manual type of mining called air legging, which involved drilling into a rock to create a tunnel, Mr Hayden said.

“They were working on unsupported ground, trapping both miners and killing one,” he added.

Mr Hayden questioned the mine’s safety standards, saying air legging was a quick, “cheap and easy way to chase gold”. 

“This form of air legging should not be used to do this type of work,” he said. 

“When this company took over they made their senior safety manager redundant.”

But mine owner Victory Minerals said the redundancy involved a corporate staffer.

“No safety professionals working underground in the mine were made redundant in the recent restructure,” it said in a statement.

“The roles and responsibilities of the redundant corporate managerial role were transferred to the health, safety, environment and community manager.”

WorkSafe Victoria earth resources manager Benjamin Wright said the circumstances leading to the collapse were unclear. 

“We’ll certainly try to understand if there’s anything that could have been it or avoided or recklessness or negligence,” Mr Wright said. 

Sign at the mine site
Investigators are looking into the cause of the rockfall. (Con Chronis/AAP PHOTOS)

He detailed how air legging requires training and is less common than mechanised mining.

Mining operations have ceased as Victoria Police work with the workplace regulator to investigate the incident and prepare a report for the coroner.

“Our absolute priority is supporting the wellbeing of our team members and their families and loved ones as we all come to terms with this tragic news,” Victory Minerals said in a statement. 

The company took operational control of the Ballarat gold mine in December 2023. 

Minerals Council of Australia chief executive Tania Constable said safety was the most important issue for the industry. 

“This tragic event is a reminder of the need to always prioritise safety above all else,” she said.

Ballarat Mayor Des Hudson said the death was devastating news.

Danger sign
Mining operations have ceased as police and the workplace regulator investigate the incident. (Con Chronis/AAP PHOTOS)

“We are a very resilient community,” he said.

“There will be great community concern and support by the local community to those that are involved.”

Premier Jacinta Allan described the collapse as a terrible accident.

“If there is advice that comes where laws can be strengthened, we stand ready to do that work and support workers across every industry who deserve the right to come home from work every single day safely to their family and loved ones,” she told reporters.

In 2007, 27 miners were trapped underground at the mine for several hours before being winched to safety.