Straight talking mining industry veteran Steve Coughlan presents at the WA Mining Club luncheon
Steve Coughlan

Straight talking mining industry veteran Steve Coughlan presents at the WA Mining Club luncheon

By: Rob Humphryson

Straight talking mining industry veteran Steve Coughlan took us on a tour de force of the origins of the Australian underground contracting sector, culminating in an impassioned plea against an increasing tendency towards unnecessary bureaucracy, threatening the effectiveness of an industry that underpins Australia’s economy.

Byrnecut’s Executive Chairman described the amazing hotbed of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit that defined Kalgoorlie and Kambalda in the 80’s and in particular the myriad of companies spawned from the talent pool that was Kambalda Nickel Operations (KNO). Restrictive unionized work practices at KNO spawned a number of iconic industry brands. With entrepreneurs seemingly on every street corner and a workforce hungry for real leadership, the stage was set for an industry transformation that forever altered the face of the underground mining industry. Productivity and safety improvements that spread beyond WA and across Australia were subsequently exported across the globe, in a clear recognition of world leading Australian underground mining expertise and work methods. During the 80s at KNO, Steve Coughlan was joined by other Industry legends such as Joe Ricciardo (JR Engineering, now GR Engineering), Frank Fiore and Colin Macintyre (AMM, NMM and now Macmahon Underground), Peter ‘Piggy’ Bartlett (Barminco, Perenti), Piggy’s partner in business Ron Sayers (Ausdrill, Perenti), Ross Graham (Aotea), Mott Ryan (Ryan Mining), Jeff hogan (Positron) and other notable companies such as Australian Raise Drilling (ARD), Eltin (HWE) amongst others. The resulting prevalence of motivated and highly efficient mining contractors enabled the unprecedented step taken by WMC in 1996 to switch all of its Kambalda operations to contract operations virtually overnight.

A 40+ year career in any industry affords one the perspective and license to candidly comment on changes they have witnessed over the journey.

Steve described his first day underground – no induction and largely word of mouth safety standards, almost a complete lack of PPE and a world in which WMC emblazoned towels were distributed for LTI free days – 30 days LTI free was enough to receive a towel, all too frequently denied in tragic circumstances. We learnt about the transition from pneumatic Gardner Denver drills to electric hydraulic machines that were the precursor to the 1000v beasts deployed underground today. The GDs were rapidly parked up and left to rust – a lesson for the young Coughlan of the need to innovate or perish, a mantra embedded into the Byrnecut DNA and a key reason why Byrnecut remains at the top of the contracting pile some 35 years later.

In typical straight talking fashion, Coughlan then took aim at a few bug bears, poignantly juxtaposing the entrepreneurial spirit that typified WA in the late 60s and 70s against what he described as the lamentably burdensome current state of approvals processes. In just 6 short years a vertically integrated nickel business was created in WA, with major assets designed, constructed and commissioned in timeframes now unthinkable. Multiple mining operations commenced at Kambalda to feed vertically integrated processing infrastructure such as the Kambalda Nickel Concentrator, the Kalgoorlie Nickel Smelter, associated rail and power infrastructure and the construction of the Kwinana Nickel Refinery. Considering the wealth generated for workers, state and country and the legacy of technical know-how, (and in a metal that is critical to global decarbonisation efforts), Steve lamented the contrast of the ‘çan do’ attitude of the past to the current mire of convoluted approvals processes.  Processes that do little to serve the public, rather resulting in overly lengthy approvals timeframes that lessen the nation’s resource industry effectiveness and drive investment offshore. Coughlan also fired a volley at similarly convoluted visa application processes that stifle the ability to bring desperately needed talent into Australia, advocating for a reverse fly in fly out approach to import critical skills, noting that this didn’t place demands on housing nor services.

Coughlan is clearly not advocating for an absence of rigorous approvals processes nor unfettered access for foreign workers to enter Australia, he is merely pointing out that if Australians expect to continue to enjoy our current quality of life, the resources industry should be strong advocates for innovative solutions and should vigorously oppose all forms of unbeneficial beauracracy.

The WA Mining Club thanks Steve for his insightful presentation. His views are not necessarily representative of the views of the WA Mining Club, however we believe that fostering healthy debate is essential in ensuring a diversity of views are represented.