Crushed miner to get $46,000

09:28, Jul 30 2013

Solid Energy has been fined $71,283 and must pay $46,000 reparation to an experienced miner who was crushed by tons of coal in Spring Creek Mine a year ago.

The state-owned coalminer was sentenced today in the Greymouth District Court after last month admitting a charge of failing to take all practicable steps to ensure Paul Burton was not exposed to the hazard of unstable coal in his workplace.

Judge Jane Farish said Burton had been left with significant health problems, including poor use of his right arm and spinal cord damage that affected his mobility and his ability to regulate his body's temperature.

He had difficulty sleeping and struggled with significant fatigue.

His injuries were permanent and prevented him returning to mining, which meant he could no longer provide for his family.

His partner had been forced to return to work and he was unable to play with his son in the way he used to before the incident.

Burton wrote in his victim impact statement, which was not read in court, that he resembled "a frail old man" and had been "robbed of his quality of life", Judge Farish said.

"His prognosis regarding rehabilitation is poor."

Burton moved to New Zealand from Britain in 2009, bringing his partner and children after Solid Energy's recruitment drive for experienced overseas miners to work in the underground West Coast coalmine near Dunollie.

Judge Farish said Solid Energy had failed to use a mesh cage to protect the miners and did not follow its own safety procedures, including having too few bolts in the roof and the sides of the area being excavated.

The miners who worked the shift before Burton was injured had noticed the area was bulging and moving, which was a safety hazard, and that the roof condition was poor.

Burton was on a night shift with four other miners and was packing up some equipment about 2am on July 25 last year when a large block of unstable coal detached from the interface between the coal seam and stone roof, hitting him on the back of his neck and body, knocking him to the ground.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment prosecuted the company under the Health and Safety in Employment Act and the charge had a maximum fine of $250,000.

The ministry's lawyer, Tasha Szeto, told the court the block of coal was 1 metre by 0.6m by 0.5m and weighed about the same as a small car.

Solid Energy's lawyer, Stephanie Grieve, said the company regretted the incident and admitted it had failed to follow its own safety procedures for the known hazard.

However, it had worked hard to make changes to prevent similar incidents occurring again, she said.

Judge Farish accepted Solid Energy was "truly contrite", noting its former chief executive, Don Elder, visited Burton in hospital.

Only a month after the incident, the company announced financial woes meant it would mothball the mine, which occurred last November, making about 230 workers redundant, including Burton.

Outside court, Solid Energy's interim chief executive, Garry Diack, said today the company "totally accepted" the court's judgment and would pay reparation to Burton immediately.

"We are really sorry to Paul and his family. It has changed their lives and it's regretful.

"I stand here mortified. I'm really upset that Paul has had to go through it."

It was the company's fourth conviction under the act.

The Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union welcomed the fine and reparation order.

West Coast area organiser Garth Elliott said in a statement Burton had to undergo major surgery to repair spinal cord damage, including having two plates inserted into his neck.

"He still suffers from some paralysis and is unlikely to ever work as a miner again.

"The injuries Paul has suffered as a result of Solid Energy's failures have impacted his earnings for the rest of his working life. These reparations are welcome but they can never compensate Paul for what he has lost."

The case highlighted the importance of stronger mining safety laws, he said.

"We hope Solid Energy has learned from its failings and puts processes in place to make sure it doesn't happen again."


Fairfax Media