Pike River Inquiry: safety recommendations ignored

The Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River tragedy has heard a federal MP ignored recommendations to improve safety in the mine, and others were delayed for over a year.

The recommendations on how small mines could improve safety standards in New Zealand detailed in a briefing paper in 2009 were ignored by Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson, the inquiry has heard.

The Department of Labour workplace health and safety policy manager James Murphy made the claims under cross-examination yesterday.

Wilkinson disagreed with the paper’s recommendations for better regulations that required smaller mines to document health and safety systems and hazard management plans.

She also did not agree to introduce check inspectors, or improve the code of practice for employee participation specifically in the mining sector.

Instead, the MP for Waimakariri decided that the department would work on a "strategic approach" to improving employee participation in health and safety.

But by the time Pike River experienced the explosions on November 19 last year that killed 29 workers underground, work on Wilkinson’s version of improvements had not started, Murphy told the inquiry.
The recommendations came from a 2008 review into improving health and safety hazard management in underground mining which was read at the hearing.

"Overall, the estimated impacts are slight and the potential safety benefit is significant, as it could avoid a tragedy similar to one of the fatalities in 2006," the review stated.

The department employed only one underground mine inspector nationwide, with one vacancy after the second inspector resigned a few weeks ago, Murphy said.

In 1998 there were seven specialist coalmine inspectors, and in the 90’s the industry scrapped the mining inspectorate’s at mines in New Zealand.

Mining expert David Feickhart has previously said a mining inspector would have prevented the tragedy ever occurring.

Murphy told the inquest work had been completed to assess the number of staff in underground mines and they had been deemed appropriate.

But he did confirm mining was in the top five industries for workplace accidents in 2005, and in the top five for injuries per employee.

"Obviously, what we do know is that when things go wrong in mining, they’re often catastrophic."

Murphy said about $1 million was saved when law changes led to the disbandment of the mine inspectorate group and its functions moved to the department in 1998.

At the time the mining industry and mine inspectors were strongly opposed to the move because of the loss of expertise and sole focus on mining, he said.

"There was considerable debate, I understand, around the time of transition and the transition did take an extensive period of time, because of the difficulties and the challenges of negotiating a satisfactory transition."

The partial takeover by different agencies and changes to the scale of work that were “significantly reduced” led to the cost savings, he said.

An engineer contracted by the Department of Conservation to liaise with Pike River Coal also gave evidence yesterday.

Mark Smith told the inquiry he and two DOC staff and a West Coast Regional Council official visited the mine just three days before the first explosion.

Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall is expected to appear in court in coming days and spent most of yesterday with lawyers preparing for his appearance.

Image: Department of Labour’s James Murphy at the Inquiry; stuff.co.nz

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