Whittall worried at Kiwi safety

NEIL REID
Last updated 05:00 10/06/2012
Peter Whittall
Peter Whittall

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Pike River mine disaster

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Peter Whittall spoke of his concerns about New Zealand workplace safety standards shortly before the Pike River mining disaster.

Whittall is defending 12 charges laid against him under the Health and Safety and Employment Act 1992, following the mining tragedy which claimed the lives of 29 miners and contractors.

Last weekend the Sunday Star-Times revealed that Whittall – chief executive of Pike River Coal at the time of the explosion – was a founding signatory to a major "zero-harm" workplace initiative.

The pledge that Whittall signed stated he would "take personal responsibility for making health and safety a vital part of my business".

Now it has emerged that Whittall aired his own issues with health and safety standards six months prior to the November 19 tragedy on the West Coast.

Whittall spoke out at a May 2010 meeting of the Department of Labour-convened Workplace Health and Safety Council.

Minutes of the meeting – obtained by the Star-Times – record Whittall telling the meeting health and safety in New Zealand was fragmented, with no standard "matrix or definitions". "Being from Australia, Peter made the comment that it all `feels like late 1980s stuff' and there is a long road ahead," the minutes read.

The meeting also featured 11 officials from the Labour Department, as well as representatives from the Accident Compensation Corporation, Business NZ, the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions and Maritime NZ.

Whittall attended the meeting as a representative of the Business Leaders' Forum on workplace health and safety.

He had signed the forum's pledge, in which he vowed to:

Take personal responsibility for making health and safety a vital part of my business; and

Create a workplace where everyone views health and safety to be as natural and important as quality, profit and customer service.

Whittall's pledge also stated that Pike River would: "Hold itself accountable before its peers by sharing its health and safety performance."

His signed pledge also stated his company would: "Champion health and safety – inspiring our people, suppliers and customers to create zero-harm workplaces."

But the ongoing royal commission of inquiry into the Pike River disaster has heard a catalogue of woe at the Pike River mine, including safety concerns, problems with the mine's design and heavy criticism of Whittall's management style, including the way he handled health and safety.

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Confirmation of Whittall signing the "zero-harm" workplace accord was greeted with surprise by Pike River families spokesman Bernie Monk.

Monk – who lost his son 23-year-old son Michael in the tragedy – said Whittall had failed to honour the pledge he had signed.

"I am bloody disgusted [after reading] that article, how sadly we were let down by people like Peter Whittall," he said.

"I just can't think that [he] was serious in what they were saying and signing their lives away to, to let something like Pike River happen.

"Now everyone seems to be coming out of the woodwork to say there were major faults at Pike.

"Here we are losing people unnecessarily."

Meanwhile, Monk said the Pike River families had no plans to push for a memorial to be erected at the entrance of the mine.

Two prominent memorials have already been constructed on the West Coast for the Pike River 29 – one in central Greymouth and another on land near the mine.

A third memorial for the Pike River 29 had been proposed at Greymouth's Lake Karoro.

Families of the dead miners and contractors have since decided that the memorial should be dedicated to all who had lost their lives in West Coast mining tragedies.

- Sunday Star Times

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