by Kevin Hague
Thanks to my awesome Caucus colleagues I have been given leave from Parliament this week to attend the first week in this second phase of the Pike River Royal Commission of Inquiry. The Green Party was one of the voices calling for an inquiry with wide terms of reference, that families and mine workers could have confidence in, and that was totally public. That’s mostly what we got. The proceedings themselves are public, but there are tens of thousands of pages of evidence that are not publicly available.
I got to part of Phase 1 as well, and the routine is much the same. Half the public space is taken up by members of the Pike families, the other half by witnesses, people from helping agencies and affected parties, and a couple of strays like me. I hope nobody else needs legal representation in New Zealand at the moment, because there’s a small army of barristers, including at least 4 QCs. A couple of journalists sit in the Court room, but most are in a separate room watching proceedings on the closed circuit TV, and are strangely insulated from what is going on.
The Commissioners don’t have much to say, but their questions, hearteningly, usually indicate a strong focus on the most important issues. This week the most significant witnesses have been Daniel Rockhouse, one of the two survivors and a genuine hero; Doug White, who was the Mine Manager at the time of the disaster, and enormously experienced, especially in Australia; and Neville Rockhouse, the Safety and Training Manager for Pike River Coal, and father of both Daniel, and Ben, who died in the disaster.
Commissioner Bell, an Australian mining expert, has asked, for me, the two most telling questions of the week. At the end of almost two days of evidence from Doug White, he asked him whether, in his extensive experience of mining around the world and especially in Australia, he had ever encountered a situation where a mine operates for 7-8 years without receiving at least some kind of corrective instruction from the regulator. The answer was no. That happened at Pike.
Then today when Neville Rockhouse finished his evidence Commissioner Bell asked him how often the Department of Labour Inspectors had audited the safety procedures and policies he had developed. The answer was never.
I think these exchanges carried such a powerful impact because we have sat in the Court day after day hearing damning evidence of safety problems. Some of these we already knew about because I had tabled the evidence in parliament or from the miners’ accounts, but they included:
- The disastrous “second exit” up the ventilation shaft, that would have required a sheer vertical climb (actually overhanging for a period) up a 55m ladder, which Mines Rescue characterised as “extremely difficult to use in normal circumstances; impossible in a fire”. Oh, and the ladder could only support 8 people on it at one time, just supposing they actually could climb it (contrast with up to 60 who could be in the mine at a change of shift)
- The emergency phone line that went to answerphone
- Nobody to meet the two survivors when they struggled to the surface
- Broken ‘smoke lines’ that miners use to find their way out of the mine when there is limited visibility because of smoke
- Sensors disabled on safety equipment
- Very infrequent disaster training exercises
- Wholly inadequate gas drainage plans
- Drilling occurring immediately adjacent to cavities filled with pressurised flammable gas. If these cavities were actually breached they were ‘capped’. There was an incident where one of these caps didn’t hold and was forced out at speed, knocking out a man nearby
- Reports of multiple ignitions
- Telephone and air supply to a decommissioned “fresh air base” part way along the ‘drift’ which is the tunnel leading from the portal to the working area, was disconnected without the knowledge of the Mine Manager, the Safety Manager or the miners
- The area in the working area of the mine called a “fresh air base” was not actually sealable from the atmosphere in the mine, meaning that it was not, in fact, a fresh air base and, indeed there was not one in the mine. This is especially important because Peter Whittall in his evidence said that, because of the difficulty of using the so-called second exit, miners were instead encouraged to go to the fresh air base in the event of an incident.
In some ways the most telling illustration of the safety culture that prevailed was the tag board. Each miner or contractor has a personal ID tag. When they go underground this must be put on a hook on a board, and when they leave underground they collect the tag. It’s obviously of fundamental importance to know who is underground at any one time. Yet on November 19th two people had left the mine without removing their tags, and one person was undergound without his tag being on the board – an error rate of about 10%.
Clearly there was something fundamentally wrong in Pike River Coal. It was clear from the evidence that the Safety Manager had a relatively low status, and very limited influence or authority (his delegated authority to spend had a maximum level of $5,000 for example). He had only one staff member, who focused on training. The answer to virtually every question about safety problems has been that a plan was being developed to deal with it, but I have heard almost nothing about safety improvements actually being implemented. Both Doug White and Neville Rockhouse have said, when confronted with the inadequacy of systems to deal with what actually occurred, that nobody ever expected the mine to blow up.
And that’s just it really: the company was under financial and production pressure, creating strong incentives for it to cut corners and to wave away the risks of unlikely disasters. In this they were aided and abetted by regulations that only require them to do what is “practicable” and an inspectorate within the Department of Labour with the even weaker requirement to take “reasonable steps” to ensure that employers do what is “practicable”, and where inspectors were over-stretched, under-resourced and insufficiently experienced.
It’s great that the Government has been forced to back down and create a dedicated High Hazard Unit, with significantly more personnel and resource for inspections. But if all they can do is police against the morass of weasel words that is the current OSH regulatory approach then yet another disaster will be inevitable. Government must move to make mine safety regulations mandatory and universal. Not after the election. Not when the Royal Commission reports. Now.