Miner reveals the horror of suffering a mental breakdown at a remote site

By Dana McCauley

Hard rock mining for lead, zinc, copper and silver fed Mt Isa's resource boom. Photo / Scott Radford-Chisholm, News Corp Australia
Hard rock mining for lead, zinc, copper and silver fed Mt Isa's resource boom. Photo / Scott Radford-Chisholm, News Corp Australia

They toil underground for weeks at a time, hundreds of kilometres away from their families.

Gruff, tough and blokey, they rely on the bonds of camaraderie to see them through laborious 12-hour shifts, alert to hazards and focused on the task at hand.

But Queensland father-of-two Barry Haack's mining career came grinding to a halt after more than a decade, when he suffered a breakdown on site at Glencore's remote Lady Loretta mine outside Mt Isa.

Barry Haack is still recovering from the trauma of being trapped in a remote mining camp. Photo / Supplied to news.com.au
Barry Haack is still recovering from the trauma of being trapped in a remote mining camp. Photo / Supplied to news.com.au

Months of alleged bullying at the hands of a manager and fellow workers brought on a severe episode of depression and anxiety, leaving the normally stoic trade assistant trembling and sobbing in plain sight.

What was to follow left Mr Haack so traumatised that he now has a phobia of confined spaces, and prefers not to leave his home town of Mackay without his family in close reach.

Despite being in clear distress, Mr Haack alleges, his bosses refused his pleas to be taken out of the camp for medical help, essentially keeping him imprisoned in his room for three agonising days.

He has now engaged legal representation through Shine Lawyers, who are preparing a civil action against Glencore on his behalf.

"I kept asking to see a doctor and it was just falling on deaf ears," he told news.com.au.

"I'd be calling the medic to my room and he'd say 'yep, yep, you need to see a doctor' and tell the HR manager again, and he'd say no. It was just a nightmare."

Stranded "in the middle of nowhere", with 140km of dirt roads separating him from the nearest hospital, Mr Haack found himself completely powerless.

"You're just stuck, you need special vehicles to get out with two-way radios and lights," he said.

"That's what really pushed me over the edge. I know if they would have let me go straight away home, or went to a doctor, I would have been okay. But they just broke me."

EMERGENCY CALL

After three days of turmoil, Mr Haack's concerned wife Melinda Haack phoned the police. It was only after they called the mine that Mr Haack was finally taken out of the camp, she said.

Mrs Haack told news.com.au she was horrified by how the company had dealt with the situation.

"If anyone had crushed their hand or had any sort of outward injury, there wouldn't be paperwork done, they'd be straight off to a hospital, straight off to a doctor," she said.

The pair called for greater awareness of mental health risks in remote mining camps, which came to national attention after a spate of suicides among fly-in fly-out workers in Western Australian last year.

"They're out there and they're vulnerable," Mrs Haack said.

Glencore's mining camps are more than 100km away from the nearest town, Mt Isa, in Queensland. Photo / News Corp Australia
Glencore's mining camps are more than 100km away from the nearest town, Mt Isa, in Queensland. Photo / News Corp Australia

She described watching her normally laid-back husband in the grips of mental distress so profound that he almost had to be admitted to the psychiatric ward.

Doctors prescribed medication to calm Mr Haack down, telling his wife that they were concerned about his state, she said.

"They did take me aside and warned me that if it didn't work that they might have to admit him, that they could actually make him stay, because he was at that point a bit of a danger to himself," Mrs Haack said.

Back at the family home and heavily medicated, the slow process of recovery began.

"I thought he was okay, he went down to the shed and started sort of mucking around, and it was only when he came back up from the shed and indicated to me that he had considered doing something to himself, that I realised that it actually wasn't okay," Mrs Haack said.

A year-and-a-half after his breakdown, "Barry still has issues with going away from home for any length of time, especially if the kids or I aren't with him," she said.

"And even just watching particular movies, anything where someone's trapped or not able to get out, Barry can't watch; it just brings a lot of stuff back.

"There are a lot of things that are triggers now, whereas if he was allowed to get the help he needed, that may have not been the case."

BREAKING THE TABOO

Hard rock mining for lead, zinc, copper and silver fed Mt Isa's resource boom. Photo / Scott Radford-Chisholm, News Corp Australia
Hard rock mining for lead, zinc, copper and silver fed Mt Isa's resource boom. Photo / Scott Radford-Chisholm, News Corp Australia

Mr Haack said he wanted to bring attention to the issue of mental health on mine sites, as many workers who were suffering were not in a position to speak out. Reports of suicides at remote camps spurred him on to "get the message out".

"Once upon a time a time the worker was number one, now it's just about the dirt coming out of the hole, that's all they're worried about," he said.

"There's always someone else to take your place, that's the way they think."

Mr Haack's solicitor, Craig Oliver from Shine Lawyers, said the mining industry suffered from a culture that expected its workers to "eat a spoon of cement for breakfast", and failed to safeguard mental health in a high-risk environment of "powerlessness and complete dependence upon your employer" in remote locations.

He said Glencore had impinged upon Mr Haack's "basic human right to freedom" by unlawfully imprisoning him at the Lady Loretta camp.

"Barry's employment showcased the reality of what a toxic culture can create," Mr Oliver said.

"We allege that the company failed to deploy reasonable methods to help Barry when he needed it most and failed in their duty of care to ensure he had the proper access to those services".

'DANGEROUS SHORTCUTS'

Glencore, which has previously faced court over alleged safety breaches that resulted in the death of subcontractor Jordan Taurima in 2013, last year announced plans to suspend production at the Lady Loretta mine after the price of zinc and lead plummeted.

Shares in the Swiss-based commodities giant plunged 30 per cent on the news in September, with analysts warning its stock could become "worthless" if prices failed to recover and the company struggled to pay down a $US30 billion debt.

Mr Haack recalled being pushed into unsafe work practices at the mine in 2014, with colleagues "too afraid of losing their jobs" to speak up.

"In the time frame, everyone was taking short cuts - and if you didn't you'd get in trouble," he said.

Mining workers spend 12-hour shifts underground. Photo / Scott Radford-Chisholm, News Corp Australia
Mining workers spend 12-hour shifts underground. Photo / Scott Radford-Chisholm, News Corp Australia

"The culture there was if you say something you're a whinger, like you get labelled ... Everything was in a rush."

He said safety rules were left by the wayside, like charging the rock face from multiple sites.

"By the rules, you can only charge from the top down in case rocks fall out of the face," he said.

"But because they were in a rush to get all these headings charged up, they didn't seem to care which way they did it."

TAUNTS 'WORE ME DOWN'

It was when Mr Haack was put on a light duty plan after injuring his hand that the real trouble began, when a manager had difficulty accepting that he was injured.

After filling out the paperwork with his safety officer, he took it to his manager who "would grab my hand and tell me I've got nothing wrong with my hand".

"It was really intimidating," Mr Haack said. "Even the safety officer was shaking his head, but he wouldn't say anything, 'cause he could be sacked."

During his four months on light duties, Mr Haack said, the manager would abuse him over the two-way radio system used to communicate in the underground mine, audible to all of his peers.

"He kept wearing me down, even crew members were saying 'gee he gives you a hard time on the radio'."

Some of the miners started mimicking the manager's taunts, Mr Haack said, including "one fella who just kept threatening me with bringing white chocolate to work, he called me the 'Milky Bar kid', 'cause they reckoned I was just milking my injury."

Having always worked in jobs where he "got on with everybody", Mr Haack was unprepared for the attacks, which "just wore me down". One day, things came to a head.

"I was in the loader underground and the loader was playing up, and 'cause I was trying to get my jobs done quick to keep the supervisor happy, that was slowing me down," he said.

"And then I tore some ventilation down off, they call it the back, which is the roof. And then I just lost it I just started crying, and I didn't even know it was going to happen. And that's when I asked to be taken out of the hole."

Mr Haack said he was later told that when his manager heard he had had a breakdown, "they said that he laughed, nearly fell off his feet laughing".

ON THE MEND

These days, Mr Haack has a job he enjoys back in Mackay, repairing mining equipment.
His colleagues don't know about what happened to him at Lady Loretta, and he describes the working environment as "family orientated". It's been a lifeline.

"I wanted to quit heaps of times in the first month," he said, recalling the anxiety that would leave him "paranoid of people watching me".

"It was just a horrible feeling, you just get all hot and flustered ... But it's gotten better over time, the people there really accepted me and they're even talking about giving me a little promotion ... It's given me a lot more confidence."

A spokesman for Glencore declined to comment on Mr Haack's claims when contacted by news.com.au.

WHERE TO GET HELP:
In an emergency: call 111
Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)

- news.com.au

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