He’s the new extractives industry safety czar. He’s from the coalmines of Scotland – and his background includes a Pike River experience of his own. HUGH DE LACY talks to TONY FORSTER.
Our lawmakers completed only half the job when they dumped this country’s prescriptive workplace health and safety legislation in favour of a performance-based system, according to Scotsman Tony Forster, the newly-appointed chief inspector extractives in WorkSafe NZ’s High Hazards Unit.
Forster, formerly Her Majesty’s principal inspector of mines for the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, was appointed in February last year as the extractives industries’ safety czar under legislative changes made in the wake of the Pike River mining disaster that caused the deaths of 29 men in 2010.
Starting out in 1972 as a production worker at the coalface of the Monktonhall Colliery in Lothian in the eastern Scottish lowlands, Forster rose through the ranks of the British Coal Corporation to become deputy-head of industrial relations for Scotland by 1988.
This was at a time when Margaret Thatcher was coming to the end of her three terms as British Prime Minister, but the country was still in uproar over her free-market reforms and, in particular, her crushing victory over Arthur Scargill and the National Mineworkers Union who had been on strike for a fruitless year over her closing of 20 of the country’s state-owned coal mines.
By then Forster had collected a mine manager’s certificate and a degree in occupational health and safety, and in late 1988 he began to specialise in workplace safety by joining the UK Health and Safety Executive.
He ended up responsible for inspection and enforcement of work-related statutes and legislation throughout the English, Scottish and Welsh extractives industries.
As such he was intimately familiar throughout his working life with the UK’s innovative health and safety measures which came into force just as he was picking up a shovel for the first time.
The UK made the change to a performance-based system with its Health and Safety in Work (HSW) Act of 1974, nearly two decades before New Zealand followed suit with its now-contentious Health and Safety in Employment (HSE) Act of 1994.
But despite having nearly 20 years to learn from the British experience, New Zealand’s lawmakers missed a vital ingredient of the UK precedent: they didn’t convert the old prescriptions into codes of practice under the HSE Act.
The British legislation, which did carry the old prescriptions over into the new codes, was the signature work of Lord Alfred Robens, a British trade unionist and Labour Party Member of Parliament who spent a decade as the chair of the National Coal Board and was the author of the Robens Report on workplace health, safety and welfare.
Robens, who died in 1999, was ahead of his time in realising that prescriptions could never keep pace with technological developments, becoming outmoded or even redundant from the time they were written.
He instead introduced the concept of goal-setting as the underlying principle behind performance-related workplace health and safety.
“[Robens] was persuaded that the whole concept of modern regulations should be built around identifying hazards and risks, then holding companies responsible for implementing the control measures,” Forster told Q&M.
“Bit by bit in the UK, prescription was replaced by goal-setting regulations which said you had to have a safe system of work, and you should train people adequately and all that, but it was backed up with prescriptive codes.
“The UK never lost prescription because it went from the regulations into the codes,” Forster says.
Not so New Zealand.
Forster is careful not to flaunt the past mistakes of his host country in its face – his job is to clean up the mess rather than give it another stir – but the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River tragedy was eminently lucid in explaining why an economically advanced country like New Zealand developed such an appalling workplace health and safety record.
Pike River, like so many others before and since, was an avoidable tragedy waiting to happen.
The inquiry found that both the mine company and the Department of Labour, which was charged with mine inspection under the HSE, were responsible for massive failures that led directly to the 29 men’s deaths.
The national soul-searching the report sparked has since been intensified by the forestry industry’s sickening recent safety record, and Forster’s appointment puts him at the epicentre of public dissatisfaction.
“At Pike River we don’t know for sure what the cause of the ignition was, but we know from the evidence given to the Royal Commission that the mine was full of gas, and there was inadequate planning and design around the mining system,” Forster says.
“People accepted that they were working in high levels of methane, [and the problem was] it seemed to have become normalised.
“People had come to rationalise it and treat it like any other track hazard, and it’s not: gas explosions are the stuff of nightmares.
“Coal mines are like wild animals: certainly they can be beautiful when they’re producing coal and energy for the country, but they’re never going to be your friend.”
It’s a lesson Forster learned in the most personal way.
His mother, Bridget Forster, never knew her father, Patrick Murphy, because he died following a pit accident in a Scottish mine when she was only six months old.
And then her uncle, Michael Murphy, was killed outright in another accident, his body trucked home on an open cart, leaving their mother both the widow and the sister of mine victims.
“People have got to get it into their heads that [a mining accident] is not just a statistic: it’s a life-changing tragedy,” Forster says.
With the fatalities within his family still casting a shadow, mining was not the first choice of a career for the young man.
He wanted to be a jet pilot with the Royal Air Force, but they turned him down because he got hay fever and had a lazy eye.
So he went into the pits, and his younger brother Michael realised their common dream by becoming a pilot with the Fleet Air Arm.
“I thought I had messed up: he was in his fancy uniform with a sword and I was in my fancy uniform with a shovel,” Forster recalls.
By the time his mother drew his attention to a job advertisement offering training and career prospects in mining, Forster had already worked as a junior architect for a Scottish firm, and as a concrete testing engineer with American oil industry giant Sanbergs.
Forster thought mining would suffice until he found out what he really wanted to do with his life, but the mines seduced him, and eventually he found his niche trying to make them safer.
In a later era he might have become a professional athlete because he was a fast runner – very very fast.
A training mate of Moscow Olympic sprint gold medallist Alan Wells, Forster was prominent as an unashamed professional in the last days of track and field “shamateurism”.
With personal bests of 9.3 seconds for the 100 yards and 10.37 for the 100 metres, in 1979 he won the New Year Powderhall world professional 110 metres sprint title, and took home £600 ($1200) and a colour television as his prizes.
His father, James Forster, had won the same title 29 years earlier, and Tony reckoned his own win was “one of the proudest days of my life”.
Forster’s priority on his new job in New Zealand, which covers quarrying and tunnelling as well as the mining sector, is to prepare the codes of practice that will at last be added to the wider provisions of the HSE.
The mining codes will come out this year, and even though the quarrying industry has for the time being opted out of regulations under the recently passed Health and Safety (Pike River Implementation) Act, Forster says they’ll have them by 2017.
In the meantime he’s got news for the “rogues and cowboys” who defy codes and regulations to carry on behaving dangerously in an inherently dangerous industry: “Their number’s up.
“If we find them we will require them to comply with the law, and if they’re not prepared to they’ve got no business being in this risky business.
“They’ve got no right to injure and kill people.”