Pike River: Ministry head accepts report

KATE CHAPMAN AND VERNON SMALL
Last updated 11:51 06/11/2012
Fairfax NZ

David Smol, chief of the Business, Innovation and Employment Ministry (Mobie), has promised urgent change in the wake of the damning report into the Pike River disaster.

UK mine experts arrive

David Smol
John Selkirk
DAVID SMOL: Chief of the Business, Innovation and Employment Ministry (Mobie).
Pike River 9
DEAN KOZNIAC/Fairfax NZ Zoom
Olivia Monk lost her brother in the mine and misses him every day.

Pike lawyer, Monk react to findings

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Pike memorial
IAIN MCGREGOR/The Press Zoom
The granite stone memorial for the Pike River mine disaster victims.
Nicholas Davidson, QC, and families
Kirk Hargreaves Zoom
FINAL PHASE: Nicholas Davidson, QC, and victims families arrive on Monday morning.

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The head of the ministry that has taken over from the Department of Labour says he accepts the findings of the Pike River disaster royal commission.

The report found the 29 victims of the disaster died because of massive failings by their employers and government agencies.

David Smol, chief of the Business, Innovation and Employment Ministry (Mobie), this morning promised urgent change in the wake of the damning report.

He said he was taking legal advice, and would make an announcement on staff matters when he was finished deliberations.

Mobie was looking at how it would handle any civil actions against the department or staff.

The current health and safety regime was appropriate, and since the Pike River tragedy six prohibition notices and 17 improvement notices had been issued, mainly to the mines at Spring Creek and Huntly East.

The workplace health and safety taskforce had been asked to look at the issue of an independent regulator, recommended by the commission, and Justice Minister Judith Collins had asked for advice on instituting a possible crime of corporate manslaughter.

Asked about a possible conflict of interest between health and safety and the ministry's focus on economic growth, Smol said health and safety was not negotiable and that economic growth should not be achieved in a way that compromised health and safety.

He said the department had been "too sanguine" in accepting that employers would act appropriately.

Smol said the commission's report told a grim story as it set out how a number of organisations, including both the company and the former Department of Labour  failed to keep the workers in Pike River mine safe.

It also criticised the former Economic Development Ministry's approach to issuing Pike's mining permit.

Smol said he would commission an independent investigation to look at the implications of the report for him as an employer, and whether there was any need to take further steps in relation to employment matters.

"I understand there is a need to provide the public with assurance that I am taking appropriate action."

The terms of reference and timeframe for that investigation would be released as soon as they were finalised.

FORMER DIRECTORS HIT BACK

Former directors of Pike River have rejected suggestions the board did not act appropriately over health and safety at the coal mine.

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A statement from lawyers for then directors John Dow, Ray Meyer and Stuart Nattrass and chief executive Peter Whittall said the men would take time to consider some findings of the report that they did not agree with.

The former directors were said to disagree with suggestions the board did not properly oversee the management of health and safety at the mine.

"They note that there has been much comment with the convenient benefit of hindsight about matters, such as the location of the main fan underground, that were known to the Department of Labour mine inspectors, the union and many others but did not attract adverse comment in relation to safety at the time."

Prime Minister John Key said primary responsibility for health and safety matters in workplaces lay with the company.

The royal commission report was damning on the company and how it had "cut corners".

"That ultimately, in their view, led to the loss of the lives of 29 men that would have been preventable if they'd done their job properly," Key told TV3's Firstline today.

Kate Wilkinson resigned as Labour Minister following the release of the report yesterday.

She retained her ministerial warrant and other portfolios.

Key said he had no reason to believe she was not a good minister.

"The Government's taken this extremely seriously, it's an unusual situation to have a minister resign even through there's no actual evidence that points to the failure of the individual minister."

The issues with health and safety legislation and monitoring had occurred over successive governments, he said.

The Government is yet to say which of the report's 16 recommendations would be implemented.

Key said they "may well go there" in terms of creating a separate health and safety body, currently part of the Minister of Business, Innovation, and Employment.

The royal commission warned New Zealand's health and safety record was inferior to other developed countries.

"We shouldn't just think about this issue solely in regard to underground coal mining, I think it's a wider issue," Key said.

Families of the 29 men are still hopeful their bodies can be recovered from the mine.

Key refused to make any promises, but the families have taken heart from their understanding of Acting Labour Minister Chris Finlayson's assurance that he would consider any evidence they gathered.

ROYAL COMMISSION RECOMMENDATIONS

* To improve New Zealand's poor record in health and safety a new Crown agent focusing solely on health and safety should be established.

* An effective regulatory framework for underground coal mining should be set up urgently.

* Regulators need to collaborate to ensure that health and safety is considered as early as possible and before permits are issued.

* The Crown minerals regime should be changed to ensure that health and safety is an integral part of permit allocation and monitoring.

* The statutory responsibilities of directors for health and safety in the workplace should be reviewed to better reflect their governance responsibilities.

* The health and safety regulator should issue an approved code of practice to guide directors on how good governance practices can be used to manage health and safety risks.

* Directors should rigorously review and monitor their organisation's compliance with health and safety law and best practice.

* Managers in underground coal mines should be appropriately trained in health and safety.

* The health and safety regulator should issue an approved code of practice to guide managers on health and safety risks, drawing on both their legal responsibilities and best practice.

* Current regulations imposing general health and safety duties on the statutory mine manager should be extended to include detailed responsibilities for overseeing critical features of the company's health and safety management systems.

* Worker participation in health and safety in underground coal mines improved through legislative and administrative changes including union appointed check inspectors with the power to shut down mines where there is an immediate danger of serious harm.

* The new regulator to supervise the granting of mining qualifications to mining managers and workers.

* Urgent attention be given to emergency management systems in underground coal mines.

* The implementation of the coordinated incident management system relied on by police and emergency services be reviewed urgently in the case of underground coal mines and high hazard industries.

* The New Zealand Mines Rescue need to be supported by legislation and funding.

* Underground coal mines required to have modern equipment and facilities

WORST MINING DISASTER IN 96 YEARS

The Pike River coalmine exploded on November 19, 2010, killing 29 men.

But for days New Zealand held out hope that they would be pulled out alive from the mine, deep in the Paparoa Range, 40 kilometres north of Greymouth.

Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall told the media that the men could be sitting around an open pipe breathing fresh air while waiting for rescue.

But when the mine exploded a second time five days after the first, all hope of rescue was lost.

It was New Zealand's worst mining disaster in 96 years.

- Stuff

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