Q&M magazine talks to an industry stalwart about the new health and safety regulations and their future implementation.
Andy Loader, the chief executive of the NZ Safety Council is very angry.
“Justice in relation to occupational safety and health is effectively dead,” he says in reference to the dropping of prosecution against Pike River’s chief executive officer Peter Whittall and charges over the Pike River Mine disaster.
“It is now official that no-one is to be held accountable for the deaths of the 29. It is incredulous that you can have a disaster in a workplace of this magnitude with no accountability other than from a failed company and a contractor to that failed company.”
The directors of Pike River Coal, the management, the mine manager, the safety manager, the safety regulator (MBIE), and the Government should be all accountable as entities in their own right, he says.
“And the employees of each of those entities should have been held accountable in relation to their individual responsibilities with regard to the opening and operation of the Pike River Mine,” he says.
“The Royal Commission found that this disaster came about due to some of this country’s worst health and safety failings, and yet not one person has been held to account for any of those failings.”
The District Court declined to carry out a prosecution of Peter Whitttall due to lack of evidence, with a number of evidence briefs not being signed, over the three years since the incident, and failure to get witnesses to return from overseas to appear at any hearing, says Loader.
Loader, an ex mine inspector back in the day when the Labour Department had 17 inspectors, believes trouble was foreseeable and risks should have been effectively controlled and engineered out.
“Even to a discerning lay person, a single entrance to a methane rich mine with a single ventilation system, a single escape tunnel (90 metres vertical and also used as an exhaust for the gases) would be forewarning enough.”
Loader also raises the question of regulation relating to ladder standards, and the requirement of step-off cages every six metres.
At the time of the disaster the Department of Labour had one sole inspector and, reportedly, they had to ask permission from the company to enter the site.
After the HSE Act was implemented in 1992 a decision was made to transfer the mining inspectorate from the Ministry of Commerce to the Ministry of Labour and it went from being fully funded by levies paid by the mining industry to being funded out of the ministry’s budget, says Andy.
“With this change and the resulting effects on the staff of the inspectorate, it went from having 17 (highly qualified and experienced) inspectors across the whole country to one inspector at the time of the disaster.
“This sole remaining inspector was unable to cope with the work-load and as a consequence the levels of regulatory inspections for large coal mines reduced from at least six times per year, to virtually nil.”
When health and safety failures are taken into account and added to the inspectorate failures, which allowed standards to deteriorate to an unacceptable level, then a disaster was a realistic probability, he says.
“This lack of regulatory oversight with compliance significantly contributed to the developing circumstances that resulted in the explosion at the mine.” The MBIE admits its own safety regulator performed poorly in the lead up to this disaster, he adds.
Nor is Andy impressed with the new H&S legislation’s lack of enforcement teeth. While the standalone regulatory enforcement (WorkSafe) is a commendable decision, without the provision of highly trained, qualified and experienced inspectors and litigators, the legislation and its intended instruments will be no more effective than the 1992 version, he says.
“The mining industry cannot, and should not, rely on check inspectors from within the industry to ensure safety of mining operations. With the lack of any minimum standards of competency being set for inspectors, this is exactly what is predicted to happen.
“It’s one thing that directors, PCBU’s (any person conducting a business or undertaking), employees etc should take responsibility for ensuring that they comply with any new law and for the consequences of their actions or inactions, but the inspectors need to be trained and qualified in the industry sector so that they know immediately when something is not in line with common industry practices or even best practice.”
Without qualified professionals in charge, the new health and safety improvements will be hindered, he iterates.
“Currently there is no minimum competency standard set for qualification of inspectors in the mining industry. If this situation continues then the government will have no guarantees that the legislative changes will make any significant improvement in the rates of deaths and injuries in the workplace.
“You can introduce all the regulations you like, but without efficient enforcement, and well-funded enforcement, they are worthless.”
Andy has a lot of time for the new chief mines inspector Tony Forster. “I think he will do a very good job, as long as he not restricted too much by budgetary constraints.”
Andy adds that Forster has said he intends to be recruiting from the industry, which is good news.