Who are you staying safe for today? That’s the sign employees see as they enter the Whyalla Steelworks. No such sign met employees at Kandos Quarry early last century. Though I imagine anxious wives reminded their husbands, as they went out the door, to stay safe.
Life was more capricious and perilous in those days and I suspect people were more fatalistic and enduring. There were certainly no counsellors. And no recognition of the term post-traumatic stress disorder. Or the condition. But there were many sudden, harrowing work place accidents. Just as traffic accidents make headlines today, it was workplace accidents at Kandos Quarry that caused alarm in local newspapers in the first half of last century, with headlines like: “Fatally Crushed”, “Man Falls 80 Feet”, “Caught by Fall of Stone” and “Frightful Injuries”.
I am going to assume that most of you have never been to Kandos Quarry, even though you probably know it played a big part in the manufacture of cement at Kandos. I was lucky enough to go on a tour there in 2009 and that helped clarify what I had read about the quarry. I don’t think the main activities changed much in the century (almost) that it operated.
You can see in the photo a great wall of limestone. First, holes were drilled into this wall and gelignite placed and fired. The holes were to a depth of between 100 and 160 feet and for example the number of holes ranged from five in 1921 to 52 in 1927. That last one, using 15 tons of gelignite, was said to be ‘the largest quantity of rock ever displaced in Australia in one shot’ – 160,000 tons of limestone.
The rock was then loaded into trucks and wheeled to the crusher where it was smashed into four inch lumps and sent on a belt to elevated hoppers. The hoppers discharged the rock into one of the 75 trucks on the aerial ropeway and so it was carried five and a half kilometres to the cement works.
The Bathurst Times writing in 1918 pointed out that the limestone, after it was put into the first trucks at the quarry face until it was bagged as pure cement, wasn’t ‘handled humanly’. Quarrying was a highly mechanised process but it still involved a lot of men – 75 in 1919.
Working with large rocks, machinery and gelignite you can imagine that there were plenty of opportunities for accidents. Albert Guthrie had more than most, but he was lucky too, for a while. In his first accident while barring stone to keep it secure, a light fall hit him, causing cuts and abrasions and splitting a bone in his left arm. Another time Guthrie was stepping out of a limestone cave when a snake dropped on him and threw coils around his neck. He shook himself and the snake dropped off without biting. The most frightening event for Guthrie and the men watching, must have been when he fell over the face of the quarry for 150 feet, catching hold at 100 feet but then having to let go. He survived with cuts and bruises and in shock, but no broken bones. Unfortunately, less than six months later he was working at the bottom of the quarry when he was struck in the back by a 50 kilo stone causing fatal injuries.
There were other human falls and rock falls at the quarry with random outcomes. Walter Gillon survived a 90 feet fall while George England died after a 40 feet fall. Patrick Foley and Frank Bluett were killed almost instantly and dreadfully mutilated by a fall of stone, while Ted Turley, Ben Wilkinson, Les Cole, John Villers, J Gaynor and Bill McMahon survived, though with a range of injuries.
There were other random accidents and lucky survivors. George Rolfe was fixing a belt on the crusher when he was caught by the arm and thrown into the stone bin. Luckily he remained conscious and was able to crawl out, avoiding being crushed by the stone, though his arm was badly injured. Lance Mills was sinking a shaft when the earth caved in and buried him. He wasn’t missed immediately but when they did dig him out they found a slab of concrete was lying across him apparently saving his life. Powder monkey, Jack Villa, was preparing a charge when the detonator exploded blowing off two fingers, while Tom Evans, survived a serious quarry accident but spent a year in hospital.
In the early years employers didn’t take much responsibility for accidents or pay much compensation, though it was obvious that accidents caused financial hardship. The Kandos company did provide an ambulance as well as first aid facilities at the colliery, quarry and factory. Workers formed the Kandos Accident Fund and it paid compensation for injury. Workers contributed a regular amount and a committee met fortnightly to discuss and settle claims. The community also rallied around and held benefit dances to raise money for a grieving family or a badly incapacitated worker. The union too was in there fighting battles for compensation, if they could prove the company at fault.
In 1941 company director Kneeshaw initiated a safety organisation for all the company’s workers. In 1953 they won the Safety Shield presented by the Cement and Concrete Association of Australia and given to the cement works with the lowest number of points, meaning the best accident record. Kandos in that year had 31 accidents totalling 249 work days lost, a high record in our eyes. The quarry was runner-up in its division over a number of years. So you can see safety was becoming an issue.
Today, thankfully, it is a legal requirement for employers to create a safe working environment and have insurance and worker’s compensation for employees. I think we might have the unions to thank mostly for that.
I have Rose to thank for turning my eyes towards Kandos Quarry.
The image of huge cliffs of solid limestone was taken by the author in 2009.