A simple, passing acknowledgement of the contribution Tony Forster has made to the extractive industries’ workplace health and safety has touched the man himself right to the core. HUGH DE LACY explains.
“You’ve given us our pride back,” a prominent Canterbury quarry operator told the departing chief inspector of extractives, Scotsman Tony Forster, following the issuance in December of the quarry safety codes of practice he was employed to implement.
The remark, made in the presence of this writer though not intended for his ears, summed up the contribution Forster has made to extractives industry health and safety in the wake of the Pike River coalmine disaster that killed 29 men in November 2010.
The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the disaster identified the failure of the then National Government’s radical Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 to convert the old prescriptive workplace safety regimes into performance-based codes of practice.
The result of that was the collapse of extractives industry inspectorate services, considered to be a major contributor to the Pike River disaster.
The Royal Commission’s report called, among other things, for the codification of safety regulations, and Forster was hired to do the job.
He had previously held the position of Her Majesty’s Principal Inspector of Mines for the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, and his new title became Chief Inspector Extractives of government agency WorkSafe New Zealand’s High Hazards Unit.
The changes that have occurred since have been “seismic,” he says.
“The first thing we put in place was the Health and Safety in Employment (Mining Operations and Quarrying Operations) Regulations, which came into effect on December 16 .
“That put a number of key components into the regulations, of which the main ones were establishing a health and safety management system built around the concept of principal hazards, and establishing core competence and continuing professional development for safety-critical post-holders,” Forster told Q&M.
Principal Hazard Management Plans addressed hazards that had the potential for multiple casualties in a single catastrophic event, or in a series of repeating incidents.
“This was a massive change for New Zealand, and it does to a degree follow some of the model legislation in Australia, but it also introduced another concept called Principal Control Plans.
“These [plans] are the fundamental elements within the new regulations that really tie the management system together for all mines and tunnels,” he says.
The regulations also cover tunnels under construction, “and that is again really important given the growth in the tunnelling industry in New Zealand”.
Forster is proud of the legislation which he says embraces the best of international standards, to the degree that he believes “other parts of the world would do well to copy what New Zealand’s done.
“New Zealand has moved from being at the back of the queue with many of these issues, but now people are looking quite enviously at what New Zealand has achieved over the past three years, because it really does represent a significant body of work.”
WorkSafe NZ was about halfway through the process of introducing approved codes of practice to support both the Act and the regulations.
The various groups – quarries, alluvial miners, goldminers, drillers, tunnellers, surface and underground miners – had started to gel into a broad group under the Extractives banner.
The dangers of small quarries slipping below the WorkSafe NZ radar were being addressed by the formation of a database from a range of “disparate and sometimes out-of-date” sources, based on a Google Earth data platform, with the aim of being able to tell the active quarries from the inactive historic ones.
“Phillip Fourie, one of the quarry specialists, has championed this – it’s his baby and he’s done a fantastic job in putting this together,” Forster says.
“Since we’ve been doing this work the notifications to WorkSafe have tripled.
“This is still very much a work in progress, as we believe there are quite a significant number of quarries still to notify WorkSafe.”
Forster is at pains to refute any suggestion that the work has been all his own.
“This has not been a one-man band; this is not even the story of WorkSafe; it’s the story of the whole extractives sector.”
The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), NZ Petroleum and Minerals, safety body MinEx, industry body Straterra, the Aggregates and Quarry Association, the Institute of Quarries, AUSIMM and industry groups such as the West Coast Goldminers Association, the Drillers Federation and the Australasian Tunnelling Society have been “enthusiastic supporters of us, and it’s marvellous, just marvellous, to be a part of that”.
“Underpinning everything has been the sacrifice and support of the Pike River families who through their courage and dignity have driven home the message that enough is enough, and that every worker has the right to return home healthy and safe to their families,” Forster says.
And now is the time for him to return to his.
The completion of his contract has drawn a line under Tony Forster’s time in New Zealand and he’s heading back to the United Kingdom to rekindle his family links, strained these past couple of years by his absence on the other side of the world.
Forster is going home to concentrate on family: “We’ve got grandchildren in the UK and I want to be part of that – I need more of a family life.”
He’s particularly grateful to wife Valerie for agreeing to make the leap around the world to New Zealand, and for supporting him while he was here.
He expects to be back from time to time, though, and is in talks with WorkSafe NZ about continuing to provide support from a distance.
He’s also checking out new job opportunities in both the UK and Australia.
Forster sums up his time in New Zealand as “a real honour and a privilege.
“I’ve been shown great courtesy by people in the New Zealand industry despite having to deliver a few hard messages and having some tough discussions.
“Of course there were a few hard cases and whatever who took a bit of persuading, but there was a seismic shift in the middle of last year  when some of the more reluctant individuals and companies decided they were going to throw their hats into the ring, and it was palpable: you could feel the change as a result.
“The overwhelming response has been positive, and the endeavour, the capability and the professionalism in New Zealand has been astounding,” Forster said.
And if his work has indeed gone some way to restoring the extractives industries’ pride after the shame of Pike River, “I’ll accept that,” he said.