by Kevin Hague
When someone heads off to work in the morning, they have a right to expect that their workplace is as safe as it can possibly be, and that they will return home again after work, safe and well. In the immediate aftermath of the Pike River mine disaster Cabinet ministers, most notably John Key himself and Gerry Brownlee, were positively bullish about mine safety standards. In fact a series of blunders – both of commission and omission – in the 1990s saw systems and structures that ensured mine safety fatally (I use the word deliberately) compromised, and subsequent governments, including this one, have missed opportunity after opportunity to remedy the situation.
Thought you might like the video of my questions in the House about mine safety. You might like to consider whether you think the Minister is answering the questions or evading their main points!
It’s effectively the companion to our release today.
Essentially what I am saying is that while National was dismantling the structure and regulations that maximised underground safety during the 1990s, they were being repeatedly warned by experts that this would cost lives, yet paid those warnings no heed. In 1992 they did away with the check inspectors – effectively one leg of a 3-legged stool, and in 1998 they sawed off more than half of one of the other legs by closing down the Mines Inspectorate.
This was coupled with a change to regulations. The Health and Safety in Employment Act in 1992 repealed the strict and mandatory safety rules for underground mining in the Coal Mines Act 1979 and replaced them with nothing, leaving underground mining largely unregulated. No new regulations were introduced until 1999, but the new rules incorporated a fundamentally different approach. Instead of being mandatory and universal, the new regulations generally contained a qualifier “where practicable”. The idea of practicability has embedded within it the idea of “affordability”, which is highly specific to an individual mining company and mine. Thus a safety measure that may be practicable for a substantial and well-founded mining company like Solid Energy, may be impracticable for a smaller and cash-strapped company, perhaps like Pike River Coal. I believe that the Terms of Reference for the Royal Commission may well not be broad enough to capture this.
I make the point that Labour had nine years in which to restore the ‘triangle of safety’ inspectorate structure and the universal, mandatory regulations that had previously ensured safety, but did not. Now this Government has had repeated opportunities to do something but has turned them all down. Now they say they will wait for the findings of the Royal Commission before doing anything – 2013 at the earliest. Could it be they would prefer to not have their inaction on mine safety connected with the Pike 29 before the General Election?
And in the meantime, every day, workers go underground into mines that we know operate in a regulatory framework that does not do all that it could to maximise safety. That seems to me to be fundamentally unacceptable.
You might wonder why I tabled the 1995 submission of Mr. Brazil, a Mines Inspector and underground mining expert, at the end of my questions. Here’s a quote from his submission:
“Furthermore the Health and Safety in Employment Act is being used as a manipulative device to eliminate management structures and many historically formed mining codes of practice that were firmly established in the heart of previous legislation, much of which has proved successful over 100 years. Should this situation be allowed to continue without intervention the end result can only be the escalation of potential for further disaster”
How many more?