Bad Ground
by Tony Wright

ISBN: 978 1 921208 87 4, Publisher: Pier 9, 2006
Reviewed by: Julie Garland McLellan*

Have you ever made a decision that resulted in someone else being harmed?

It is an appalling thought. Directors in health, mining, construction and other industries make these decisions every day. Usually the decision, at the time it is taken, is not intended to cause any harm. It is all about getting the job done, establishing a culture of 'can do' attitudes, being prudent with shareholder's funds, getting the job done, or a million other similar reasons. Then someone, or something, causes a chain of events that result in harm being done.

This book is about a disaster in a mine that caused one man to die and two others to be trapped underground for nearly 14 days. Nobody wanted it to happen but it did.

The book is heavy on drama and short on details of the decision making processes before and during the events at the Beaconsfield Gold Mine in 2006. There is a strong respect for the courage of mine workers and paramedics who willingly risked their lives to save two others. There is also a deep mistrust of the boards and senior management that appears more cultural than based upon the evidence of witnesses to the decision making processes. It is a mistrust that is widely felt in our society and one that, as a director, I found painful to read between the lines of this story; painful but probably also useful.

The whole book is an exercise in risk management with the highest possible stakes. When company directors learn about risk management sooner or later they will talk about the wisdom of never running the risk of the worst outcome to gain only the most likely outcome. In this book the most likely outcome was an additional two deaths. The worst outcome was the death of the rescue team and the trapped miners but the best possible outcome, saving those two lives, was only possible by running the greatest risks.

Throughout the book there is evidence of training and preparedness. This company had invested in trained staff and appeared to have responded well to the disaster in the early hours and days. Then came the amazing discovery of survival and the start of a rescue attempt that is riveting in the reality of the detail portrayed.

The rescue would never have been possible without the trained staff in the company, the expertise gathered and shared by industry associations and the generosity of other companies who lent staff and equipment to the fraught endeavour.

Above all this is a story of courage. Of people stepping out of their safe and comfortable routines to do extraordinary things: The executives in the ferry company who delayed their sailing so they could carry a piece of essential equipment, the paramedics with no underground experience who spent 12 hour shifts almost a kilometre below surface monitoring and cheering the trapped miners, and the miners of the rescue attempt.

Any director of a mining company would do well to read this book. We need to know the worst so we can ensure we avoid it. We need to have the right team and the right culture to be resilient in the worst circumstances. This is a book for boards that was never intended to be a board book. It is gripping stuff; quite unlike the books I usually review, I found it rewarding and I think you will also.

* Julie Garland McLellan is a professional non-executive director, board and governance consultant and mentor. She is the author of "Dilemmas, Dilemmas: practical case studies for company directors", "The Director's Dilemma", "All Above Board: Great Governance for the Government Sector" and numerous articles on corporate strategy and governance.

Julie Garland McLellan to judge 2011 Global eBook Awards