OH&S News

Pike River a timely lesson for Xmas

As we head into Christmas (wow, what happened to 2012!?!), everyone focuses on the festive times ahead. Of course, in the quarrying industry, looking too far ahead of the moment is dangerous ? it may mean workers don?t pay attention to the safe operation of plant and equipment. At this time of year, perhaps more than any other, it?s important to preserve workers? safety and health as they prepare to spend holidays with families and friends. For some families this Christmas, it may be the first of many without a loved one who has succumbed to unsafe work practices during the year.

For 29 families in Australasia, it may be a little easier for them to cope this Christmas now that New Zealand?s Royal Commission on the Pike River coal mine tragedy has delivered the first volume of its findings. On 19 November, 2010, 29 miners, including two Queenslanders, were killed in an underground mine explosion caused by the ignition of a substantial volume of methane gas. In the following nine days, the mine exploded another three times and was eventually sealed. The victims? bodies have not been recovered.

The Royal Commission (comprising Stewart Bell, Queensland?s Commissioner for Mine Safety and Health) was convened in April 2011. After more than 18 months of deliberation, its findings and recommendations were released in early November. The Commission concluded that Pike River Coal Ltd had not completed the requisite systems and infrastructure to safely produce coal, that its health and safety systems were inadequate and that the company?s board of directors did not ensure that health and safety was properly managed. 

Executive managers also did not address the health and safety risks faced by workers, which included dismissing 48 reports of methane levels reaching explosive or near explosive levels.

The Commission also criticised the role of the health and safety regulator, the NZ Department of Labour, which lacked ?the focus, capacity or strategies to ensure that Pike was meeting its legal responsibilities under health and safety laws? and should have prohibited Pike from operating the mine until its health and safety systems were ruled adequate. As Nicholas Davidson QC, the lawyer representing the victims? families, lamented, Pike River was ?an unrelenting picture of failure at virtually every level?.

The commission made 16 recommendations, which included the formation of a new Crown regulator with a focus on health and safety, the appointment of an expert mining taskforce to update mining regulations under the NZ Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 (including adopting Queensland and New South Wales precedents), major improvements to emergency responses, a review of health and safety directors? statutory responsibilities and more worker participation in managing health and safety.

The Commission also recommended the new regulator should supervise the granting of mining qualifications to managers and workers, including working with Australian counterparts towards developing a joint accreditation process and an Australian/NZ board of examiners.

So what lessons can Australian quarrying learn from Pike River? During the inquiry, Australian OHS and mine safety models were frequently invoked to reform the NZ system but as I?ve argued previously, our own OHS systems are not infallible. As much as the boom states in particular pride themselves on ?world?s best practice? when it comes to mine safety, it didn?t stop quarry workers across Australia during the course of the year losing their lives or being severely injured ? and we shouldn?t be arrogant enough to think that another Pike River couldn?t happen here in the future.

It?s disingenuous of us to think that we can hold ourselves up as the template for our Kiwi cousins when various OHS regimes and mining regulations across Australia are far from harmonised. We need to also sort out our own house ? and that should include aspiring for uniform national mining regulations (via the National Mine Safety Framework) across the states and territories in the years ahead.

Keep safe this Christmas and I look forward to working with you all again in 2013!

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