There’s been steady progress on site safety, but there’s a heap more to do, according to WorkSafe’s new Chief Inspector Extractives. HUGH DE LACY explains.
LIKE THE TWO people who preceded him at WorkSafe’s High Hazards Unit (HHU), Paul Hunt feels he has his work cut out for him to accelerate the uptake and embedding of the post-Pike River safety regulations in our quarrying and mining industries.
The uproar that followed the deaths of the 29 Pike River coal-miners in 2010 saw Scotsman Tony Forster installed as HHU Chief Inspector, charged with bringing extractives health and safety (H&S) practices into an industry notorious for its paucity of them.
Forster quit the role and returned home in 2016, but his trail-blazing work, based on extensive mining experience in the United Kingdom, was carried on by Mark Pizey, who had previously managed the Pike River mine after state-owned collier Solid Energy bought it in the wake of the disaster.
Pizey’s replacement in March this year, Paul Hunt, is another Solid Energy veteran, but of the thermal collieries of the Waikato rather than coking coal mines of the West Coast.
Hamilton-based Hunt’s focus will be particularly on driving the further uptake of health and safety measures by smoothing out the variability still evident in training and competency, and driving home the regulatory background for training and supervision.
Hunt started out in the industry in 1978 as an electrician and New Zealand Certificate of Engineering cadet for the then State Coal, Solid Energy’s predecessor, working at both opencast and underground mines at Huntly.
With these qualifications behind him, he moved over into operations and gained his underground and opencast tickets, including Manager and SSE Certificates of Competence (CoC).
Apart from a brief stint on the New Zealand Steel expansion and the North Island Main Trunk electrification projects, he held coal production and management roles for 30 years before taking the Chief Inspector posting.
During that time he served as manager of the Huntly West mine, charged with recovering and restoring it, and getting it back into production.
He was then appointed first as production, then as general manager of Huntly East, the country’s biggest underground coal-mine at the time.
This involved increasing production through general improvement projects, including the upgrading of mechanical and electrical installations, and of the mobile plant to meet Australian industry standards, and introducing 18-month training programmes for all mineworkers.
“Mine and quarry operators have a legal duty to train their workers in both their production and their H&S responsibilities. It’s not optional.”
It was his final role with Solid Energy before that entity was killed off by the National-led Government and the weight of its own indebtedness.
Throughout his time in the coal-mines, Paul Hunt was continuously involved in H&S: he was a worker H&S representative from soon after he joined State, and was an active Mines Rescue brigadesman at both the West and the East Mines.
As general manager of the East Mine he developed and implemented risk-based H&S and comprehensive trainee miner systems, at a time when the privately owned Pike River was heading down the road to calamity under the toothless constraints of the 1991 Health and Safety in Employment Act.
Hunt remembers clearly the shock of learning as he stepped off a plane at Hamilton Airport of the explosions at Pike River and the massive loss of life that resulted from them.
It left him feeling staggered.
Through the subsequent Royal Commission of Inquiry, which laid the blame squarely on the old H&S Act, he toiled with the rest of the senior staff to salvage what he could from the slow-motion political train-wreck that Solid Energy itself had become.
Today Paul Hunt sees himself as very much the successor to Forster and Pizey in trying to cement an indelible H&S culture into the quarrying, no less than the mining industry.
From his own qualifications base, which includes Senior Site Executive and First Class Coal Mine manager, Paul has the goal of getting the New Zealand extractives work-related fatal injury rate down from the more than three per 100,000 it has historically been, to something more like the United Kingdom rate of less than one a year.
After the Pike River spike of nearly six per 100,000 in 2010, the New Zealand rate is still running well above two, and, ominously, the latest available figures show it trending faintly higher from 2015 on.
By contrast, the Australian rate had declined from slightly under three in 2008 to well under two by 2016, while the worst performers, the United States and France, continue to kill their mine and quarry workers at the annual rate of three per 100,000.
Paul says bluntly that our extractives industry; “is not yet performing to an acceptable level with regard to H&S,” and he sees that slight, but dangerous, upward trend in mortality as being principally a question of competency, both in the physical mining and in dealing with the H&S hazards that abound within it.
“The regulations specify that a CoC has to be held by those responsible for safety-critical operations, but there are still insufficient of these in place,” he tells Q&M.
“Mine and quarry operators have a legal duty to train their workers in both their production and their H&S responsibilities.
“It’s not optional.”
On H&S aspects in particular, Paul says the industry regulator expects to see training taking place in the workplace and on the work-site, not just workers being sent on courses with training providers who don’t fully understand the particulars of every site.
What site inspections have also revealed is a variable rate of risk management knowledge, and in particular a failure to apply the knowledge available in a practical situation.
“Theory is only theory if you don’t know how to put it into practice.”
CoC examination panels have also revealed shortcomings, he adds.
“It is sometimes obvious that rote learning has taken place, and when the candidates are asked questions based on quite practical scenarios, they have struggled to demonstrate an ability to apply their knowledge to the situation.”
A lack of H&S leadership is sometimes apparent, even where those in leadership roles are otherwise technically sound.
“If the manager demonstrates a strong and consistent focus on safety, the sites will invariably be more compliant.”
What Paul wants to see, and the prime focus of his new role as Chief Inspector Extractives, is training and supervision directly linked to risk assessment, and being fit for the purpose, the site, its size and complexity.
He wants coaching, practice and leadership aimed at ensuring the system works, rather than a tick-the-boxes mentality.
This needs to be supported by documented induction, training and supervision records, he says.
As the Pike River recovery team prepares to try to re-enter the mine in search of the 29 bodies and the cause of the explosions, and with the tenth anniversary of the disaster just two years away, Paul wants his time in the Chief Inspector’s role to bed in the regulations and practices designed to ensure it never happens again