Features, Safety events and incidents, Underground operations

After the disaster

disaster, underground mine

The sticky web of trauma can be an ongoing struggle for those affected by a disaster. Safe to Work talks to an expert to learn more.

A vast legislative framework, rigorous training, and significant investment in safety technology come together to make the mining industry one of the most regulated sectors in the country. 

But, as is the case with any industry, a degree of risk remains. 

According to Safe Work Australia, fatalities in the mining industry decreased from 12.4 per 100,000 workers in 2003 to 2.4 per 100,000 in 2022. However, Despite the improvement on earlier years, the mining community can agree that 2.4 per 100,000 is still 2.4 too many. 

While a fatal incident itself is often the focus of attention, what takes place afterwards in the lives of those affected can be just as critical. 

Surviving a workplace accident can leave people with physical injuries that may alter the trajectory of their lives, or the harder-to-spot scars like trauma and survivor’s guilt. 

Brant Webb, one of the two men who survived the 2006 Beaconsfield mine collapse, knows all about those scars. 

In a recent interview with Fairfax, Webb discussed his experience.

On Anzac Day 2006, Webb and 16 others were working at a gold mine in Beaconsfield, Tasmania, when a small earthquake triggered an underground rockfall. 

While 14 workers escaped, Webb and fellow miner Todd Russell became trapped, while another man, Larry Knight, tragically lost his life. 

Webb and Russell spent a harrowing two weeks trapped 1km underground, sustained by a PVC pipe which rescuers used to deliver essential supplies to the pair. 

After a complicated battle with trying underground conditions, both men were rescued. 

During the ordeal, Russell sustained injuries to his knee and vertebra, while Webb injured both knees, several vertebrae, and his neck. But those bodily injuries were only part of the story. Reflecting on the incident, Webb said his rescue was only the beginning of a years long struggle with his physical and mental health.  

“You can’t do anything about it. You just have to deal with the feelings that you’re left with if you survive,” he said. 

Webb described his ongoing battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a mental health condition triggered by a traumatic event. Symptoms of PTSD include severe anxiety, mood swings, uncontrollable thoughts about the event, flashbacks, and nightmares. 

Webb said his most recent episode was triggered by the news of a mine collapse in Ballarat, Victoria, in March, which took the life of one miner and seriously injured another. 

Particularly moving for Webb was the fact that the Ballarat man who lost his life was 37 years old, the same age as Webb when he underwent his own ordeal at Beaconsfield. 

“It [the PTSD episode] only lasted about five minutes, but you can never tell when it’s going to hit you like that,” he said. “These blokes from the Ballarat mine will need to learn about all this, but first they’ve got to talk openly about their fears and their feelings. It’s really important.”

Webb passed on some advice given to him from his doctor that has helped him manage his own mental health over the years. 

“He told me to gather my family and my close friends around me straight away and let it all out, to hold nothing back, and later he advised me to accept invitations to go on the speaking circuit. “I shared everything first with my wife, Rachel, and then everyone else. It helped a lot.”

Following the Beaconsfield incident, Webb became a Tasmanian ambassador for the Black Dog Institute, a research organisation for the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mood disorders such as depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder. 

He shares his experiences with depression and anxiety in the hopes of helping others. 

While this approach worked for Webb, trauma can affect different people in different ways.

To learn more about how trauma can manifest in the lives of individuals, Safe to Work sat down with Dr Kathy Kezelman. 

Kezelman heads the Blue Knot Foundation, an organisation that provides specialist support services, research, and advocacy related to complex trauma. She is also deputy chair of the National Centre for Action on Child Sexual Abuse. 

“When it comes to trauma, you can’t generalise,” Kezelman said. “We’re all individuals and we all have a different make-up, different support structures around us and different experiences. 

“But what we do know is that the impacts of trauma can last a long time.

“At Blue Knot, we work with people who experience interpersonal trauma; so violence, abuse, neglect, and exploitation. That journey can be very protracted unless people get the right support when they need it.”

Kezelman said trauma can be cumulative, affecting an individual’s ability to cope with future experiences. 

“We’re all biologically wired with a survival response, and that fight, flight, freeze response is often heightened in people who have experienced trauma,” she said.

“Which means that when you’re exposed again, in either everyday stress or to traumatic events which can overwhelm your ability to cope, your nervous system is already on high alert. 

“And so people who have some unresolved trauma often experience a nervous system where they’re either on high alert, agitated, readily triggered, or really withdrawn and shut down. 

“And they can oscillate between those different spaces, finding it very hard to regulate those strong emotions.” 

These underlying traumas can manifest in people’s personal lives and in the workplace. 

“The very core of trauma is feeling unsafe physically as well as emotionally, because trauma means that you have been under threat or in danger,” Kezelman said. 

“And so that heightened sense of feeling under threat can remain with you, affecting the way you engage with the world, the way you engage with yourself, and the way you engage with others.

“People who have a heightened nervous system can be reactive to others. They can feel like they’re not understood, they might find it hard to resolve conflict, or they may have trouble with interpersonal boundaries.” 

While it is important for people who have experienced trauma to seek help, Kezelman warned family members and friends against being too heavy-handed.  

“What happens when you’re traumatised is the thinking brain goes offline and it becomes very hard to make decisions and judge things,” she said. “It can be very hard to process trauma. 

“So it’s about getting into a space in which you’re safe enough, stable enough and secure enough to be able to start to think through the trauma.

“That happens at different times for different people, and different people also have different ways of working through trauma and different ways that they find support, whether it’s working with the body or expressive arts or talk therapy or a combination of all of those things.”

Kezelman also said family and friends can play an important role in helping work through trauma. 

“I think it’s very important for people to be there in a non-judgemental way to find out what the person needs in the moment, rather than trying to solve their problem,” she said.

“It’s about just being with someone and finding out what they need and walking alongside them through the journey, but then gently encouraging them to seek other supports as well.”

The mental health culture in the workplace also has an enormous role to play when it comes to managing trauma. 

“Work can be stressful and demanding and, depending on the workplace culture, it can be very hard for people to show vulnerability to reach out and say, ‘Hey, I’m not feeling great’, and get the support they need,” Kezelman said.

Kezelman said a healthy workplace culture is one that is trauma-informed, providing a space for people to feel safe, heard, and not judged. A healthy workplace is one that understands that trauma is part of life’s journey for a lot of people. 

“To be less judgmental and to be empathic and compassionate and offer support to people can be very pivotal in the start of the healing journey,” Kezelman said. 

This feature also appears in the May-June issue of Safe to Work.

Send this to a friend