Refinery workers who were expected to clock on at the Alcoa Wagerup refinery during the recent WA bushfires were put in danger by their employer, according to unions, who are now calling for a public inquiry into the incident.
The Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union (AMWU) has released video footage taken by employees as they were transported to work on a bus, which shows the vehicle passed by raging bushfires.
With 100 employees on two busses, the union says the video is clear evidence that Alcoa risked the lives of their workers by bussing them through a fire zone on the way to work.
AMWU state secretary Steve McCartney indicated that the footage (which is actually a smartphone recording of a video played on another smartphone) shows flames “coming within metres of the bus, as well as embers and ash flying through the air”.
“We are calling for an independent, public inquiry to ensure that workers’ lives are never endangered in the same flagrant, profit driven way again,” he said.
One of the bus passengers spoke of the level of fear workers had for their safety: “If one of those embers had entered the air-conditioning unit on top of the bus, the whole thing could’ve gone up and lives would have been lost.”
A spokesman for the union said they tried to obtain the original video, but that the individual had backed away from the union out of fear for his job.
On January 7 the union voiced concerns that miners had been instructed to attend work at the Willowdale bauxite mine.
A spokeswoman for Alcoa told Australian Mining that while union reports of workers being forced to continue working at the Willowdale Mine were “completely false”, operations had continued at the Wagerup alumina refinery while fire crews defended the site.
“The welfare of our employees is paramount and everything is being done to ensure employees in the refinery are safe,” she said.
This morning McCartney said Alcoa had “flatly rejected the union’s concerns and continued to transport workers into the danger zone”.
It is understood that on the same day the company told workers by text message that they were to report to a pick-up point at 5:30am the next morning for transport to site by bus, but were never informed the bus would go into a fire zone, or briefed on evacuation and response procedures.
The union also said the bus was not escorted by suitable authorities, despite the drivers being told they would have an escort from the pick-up to site.
“This video footage proves how dangerous this situation was and shows that the company completely disregarded the safety and welfare of its own workers,” McCartney said.
“The majority of these workers arrived at work only to find out they would be carrying out routine, day-to-day tasks completely unrelated to defending the refinery from the fires.
“They were completely unprepared for this event and not adequately trained to deal with a fire emergency if the fire had reached the refinery.”
The ABC reported local Labor member for the South West region Sally Talbot had fielded stories from Alcoa employees who had spent January 8 “concerned they were not going to survive the day”.
Talbot has also called for a public independent inquiry into the incident.
"Those people spent well nigh on 12 hours in fear of their lives," she said.
"It started with a horrific bus journey in through extremely dangerous areas.
"Even getting in they had to turn back because a bridge collapsed."
Alcoa Refining chief operating officer Simon Butterworth said he was “proud and appreciative” of staff efforts.
"The great majority of our employees displayed tremendous commitment and professionalism during this difficult time," he said.
More than 143 properties were destroyed in the nearby town of Yarloop, which has brought criticism against the bushfire response efforts relating to poor planning, however neither the Willowdale Mine nor the Wagerup Refinery suffered any damage.
Alcoa reported damage to the Alcoa Farmlands operation, with offices destroyed and some damage to fencing.
This week Alcoa Australia chairman and managing director Michael Parker donated $100,000 to the Lord Mayor’s Distress Relief Fund, to assist victims of the bushfires.
“As we assess the damage and continue to restore normal operations at our Wagerup Refinery and Willowdale Mine, we remain focused on helping the community and will continue to provide as much support as we can,” he said.
“I pledge these funds in recognition of the incredible efforts of our workforce. Their resilience, professionalism and generosity during this incredibly difficult time is inspirational.”
Australian Mining has approached Alcoa for comment.