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1900 Balmain Colliery - Winder

Case Study

On the afternoon of 17 March 1900, an incident occurred at Balmain Colliery resulting in the death of five workers. The colliery was located on the edge of Iron Cove in the inner-west of Sydney in NSW.

The mine

The Sydney Harbour Collieries Company had been sinking shafts onto coal for some months. The shaft in which the incident occurred was brick-lined and of circular construction. There was a bratticed wooden partition extending the length of the shaft, and opposite to that, a number of timber cross-pieces, called buntings, parallel and a few feet apart. Workers were transported up and down the mine shaft in a large iron bucket which hung at the end of a cable. Great care was required to ensure that the bucket did not swing sideways and dash against the sides of the shaft.

The incident

On the afternoon of the incident, the bucket was lowering six men, each with one leg in the bucket and one leg hanging over the side. It was lowered down into the shaft, which was approximately 500 metres deep. When the bucket had been lowered just over halfway, the workers at the brink of the shaft noticed the cable begin to sway from side to side and they were immediately given the signal from below to stop the descent.

The sole survivor of the incident, Mr William Watkins, later reported that, as the bucket was lowered, the kerosene flare light was blown out just below the surface, so the men were in complete darkness during their descent. At about 350 metres down, he heard a terrible crash when the bucket collided with one of the buntings, tipping it over and causing five of the occupants to fall to the ground below. He had a firm grip of the iron-arched handle and was able to remain in the bucket when it became upright again. He sustained a laceration to the left side of his head and a hand injury.

At the bottom of the shaft, workers were engaged in blasting and other mining operations when they heard a strange sound from up in the shaft. There was a rushing noise and five bodies dropped down from above, none of them surviving the fall.

The verdict

At the inquest, the jury found that, it could not be determined what had caused the bucket to sway. It was considered possible that one of the men had suffered a medical episode causing the bucket to sway, but there was no evidence to prove the theory.

The jury declared that the workers died from ‘injuries accidentally received’ and recommended that in future every person employed to descend the sinking shaft at the colliery must be examined by a medical practitioner at least once every six months.

Shafts and winders are a principal hazard under current Regulation

Mine operators must prepare a principal hazard management plan which provides for the management of all aspects of risk control in relation to the principal hazard of mine shafts and winding systems (refer clause 24, Work Health and Safety (Mines and Petroleum Sites) Regulation 2014).

This incident claimed the lives of 5 people: Philip Jones (19), Theodore O Travers (22), Alexander Robertson (35), Charles Munnings (28), James Smith (35).