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Mining giant’s safety systems ‘catastrophically failed’ says industry

Rio Tinto driverless train
Rio Tinto driverless train

A global mineral producer’s procedure to minimise workplace incidents was totally deficient, an advocacy found.

Rio Tinto’s rail safety systems were recently discovered to have catastrophically failed, possibly endangering the lives of a network locomotive drivers crew when a runaway automated train crashed into another 222 broken-down locomotive about 80km south of Karratha.

The Mining and Energy Union (MEU) revealed the incident, which occurred after midnight on 13 May 2024, was not due to human error and was management’s fault.

“Rio Tinto train controllers initiated the ‘on-site’ feature, transmitting it to the autonomous train to the south of the 222 car disabled train. The ‘on-site’ override was implemented recently in response to a collision that occurred on the Rio Tinto iron ore network at Marandoo. The override’s aim is to prevent collisions when undertaking movements in recovery locomotives onto disabled trains. In this case, however, it appears the override was mistakenly sent to the loaded autonomous train to the south,” MEU said in a public statement.

“The mistake in issuing the ‘on-site’ override to the incorrect vehicle stems from more than simple user error. In order to issue the override the train controller must have their work checked and approved by their supervisor.”

The union believes the ‘on-site’ command should have never been approved for transmission because it is not normally used in autonomous operations mode.

“It is a feature developed for assisting disabled trains whilst humans are driving the locomotive, being required to stop and pick up lead shunter,” it said.

“This collision was not the result of the error of a single train controller but rather a systematic failure of Rio Tinto’s implementation of safety procedures surrounding automation. We believe Rio Tinto’s suspension of the ‘on-site’ override following this incident is a tacit confirmation of this fact.”

Furthermore, network locomotive drivers crew members have expressed “shock” and “concern” over Rio stressing there were “no people” near the accident scene and “no injuries” reported.

“No statements from Rio Tinto to the media suggest that this incident could have easily led to serious harm or death to the attending workers. In a statement following the incident an unnamed Rio Tinto spokesperson claimed that ‘there were no people in the vicinity and no injuries,’ with no mention given to the six workers who narrowly escaped from the scene moments before the collision,” MEU said.

“Not one of the six attending workers have been asked to provide witness statements to Rio Tinto. This strikes the workers as nakedly hypocritical as they are regularly required undertake overtime to write statements for comparatively minor incidents such as small cuts or strained joints.”

Different Rio employees have anonymously made the following statements according to the union:

“Rio Tinto make[s] safety molehills into mountains when it comes to disciplining workers but here is a real mountain, and they just want to minimise it.”

“Rio Tinto have put out an incomplete version of events that underplays the risk to workers’ lives – we want the facts to get out there.”

“We want accountability and safety. We are at the forefront of automation, we have accepted and embraced it, we just want to ensure that we get home safely to our families at night.”

Click here to read the full statement.

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