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Bob Mellows: Caring about Safety at Work

A smouldering fire in a timber pumphouse deep underground led to one of the most terrible mine disasters in Australian history. It also led to one of the greatest rescues – a triumph of human determination and cooperation.

More than a century ago, on 12 October 1912, the day’s shift of copper miners headed deep into the bowels of Mount Lyell in Tasmania. Forty-two of the men would never make it ‘topside’ again.

When the fire started, nearly a hundred workers were trapped below it. Unable to find a passage to the surface, they urgently needed breathing equipment to have any hope of surviving. And the nearest suitable gear was in the goldmining towns of Bendigo and Ballarat in Victoria – on the far side of Bass Strait. 

Breaking all existing shipping and railway-speed records, the breathing apparatus reached Tasmania’s west coast in time to save over fifty miners, who were finally brought to the surface four days later.

Not all of those trapped beneath the ground had been saved, though. Many people across Australia who’d prayed for the men were grieved at the tragic losses. A Royal Commission was ordered into the safety practices at the mine; but mining remained a very dangerous occupation for decades to come.

Eighty years later, Bob Mellows, a manager at the Cornwall Coal Mine in Tasmania’s Fingal Valley, concluded that a Royal Commission alone was not the answer to workplace health and safety. He felt that the law of the land was not as good as God’s law: having genuine love and concern for other people’s wellbeing.

Bob convinced his employers and the people who worked for him that their dangerous workplace could be vastly safer – if they started treating each other differently. He looked to the teaching of Jesus: ‘Do to others as you would have them do to you’ (Luke 6:31).

Bob Mellows explored Jesus’ teachings on love and shared his understanding of Scripture with the mine workers. He helped them to understand that real safety would come with genuine respect, care and love for their fellow human beings. In 1998, he said, ‘It is not because of legalism that Jesus Christ told us to love God and love one another. It was because he knew it was essential to our wellbeing in all aspects of life.’ He went on to say, ‘The foundation of safety is loving one another (and ourselves).’

Sharing this teaching with his co-workers made a huge difference. In the decade between 1980 and 1990, about 200 accidents a year had been reported at the Cornwall Mine. Many people had been hurt in these accidents, and the mine managers often had to pay large sums of money to people who had been injured. But when Bob Mellows’ Scripture-inspired values were taken on board, and people started caring about each other’s safety at work in a deeper and more meaningful way, the accident rate plummeted. By 1993, it was almost zero.

Stephen Baxter, another Tasmanian Christian, had this to say: ‘Here we see a clear picture of how the values of Jesus work in the real world, and the result when one person takes Jesus seriously and becomes salt and light in the community.’

Occupational health and safety is something that many employers are deeply concerned about – partly because they need to obey the laws about workplace safety, and partly because accidents cost companies money when people need to be paid compensation for injuries, when valuable work time is lost or when equipment is damaged.  

But the most important reason to be concerned about workplace safety is caring for the people in the workplace! 

Bob Mellows was able to bring an entirely new perspective to this issue when he pointed out that Jesus, the carpenter of Nazareth, knew about hard physical work and manual labour. Jesus never suggested that governments should make laws to force people to care about each other in the workplace – or anywhere else for that matter. Instead, he knew that only God’s law of real love for others can change people’s hearts and make that a reality.

Written by Annie Hamilton.


Information provided by Associate Professor Stuart Piggin.

Research paper: RC Mellows, ‘Improving Relationships’, Coal Operators’ Conference, 2019

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