Editorial: Enough of all that trust

Last updated 05:00 07/11/2012

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OPINION: They're calling the Royal Commission Pike River report a horror story.

That's too up-close a view. It's entirely horrible, to be sure. But not the entirety of the horror. More a chapter in the nationwide horror story of vague oversight for health and safety.

The wider significance of the report goes far beyond problems of mine management and stands as an indictment of the disastrous "low touch-high trust" inspectorates that have been in place since the early 1990s.

Out went those objectionable little men with clipboards and what seemed to the politicians of the day as obstructionist pedantries. True inspectorates were replaced by suggestorates - low touch-high trust visitations by an officialdom founded on the sure and certain knowledge that employers may need their attention focused on problematic areas, but that ours is a nation of responsible people, perfectly capable of self-regulation and voluntary compliance, thank you very much.

Look at the outcomes. Failures ranging from leaky homes to earthquake deathtraps to interestingly bad workplace safety records by international standards.

The CFMEU Miners Union says Pike River managers knew full well what international best practice was because they had worked in Australia, but they didn't comply with it here because the law didn't make them.

That mine was a bomb that should never have been permitted to open. The management, desperate for production income and welcomed into an area desperate for jobs, was able to send men into a pit in spite of a process for extracting methane gas that was utterly inadequate.

In the 48 days before the explosions there were 21 reports of methane gas reaching explosive levels. When alarms sounded on machines, the alarms were turned off. Dear God in heaven that was a disgrace. That was sub-Third World practice.

The mine inspectors, insufficient though they were in numbers, expertise and resourcing, identified issues but were not insisting that things be fixed then and there. No, no. It came down to how much time might be accepted as necessary to comply with such requested matters as building another way out of the mine.

It is tragically, miserably undeniable that our coal industry must be totally overhauled.

Which it will be. We are at the stage where disasters of sufficient clarity and immediacy impel significant change.

The strengthening of building codes coming about after the Christchurch earthquake forced so much attention on the inadequacy of the existing regime. Similarly, the Pike River commission's raft of entirely sensible recommendations relating to the mining industry itself will be actioned and that industry will, indeed, be the better for it.

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But that still leaves the Government weighing up the most towering of the commission's recommendations: a stand-along Crown entity dedicated to improving workplace health and safety.

This would be independent and expert enough to be rather less biddable than the present mishmash of responsibilities among a bunch of oftentimes-independent contractors and sub-contractors for whom workplace health and safety is one of a bunch of imperatives, most of which are tied up with financial considerations.

We really don't need any more cautionary lessons. We have a superabundance of those. We just need to act on what we have learned.

- The Southland Times

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