Put safety before profit

OUT OF LEFT FIELD

ROSS HENDERSON
Last updated 10:30 10/11/2012

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The royal commission on Pike River will be a turning point for New Zealand. And not before time. My union was integrally tied up in the events of Pike River, so I feel close to it.

I never bought the line running at the time of the tragedy that chief executive Peter Whittall was a hero. Sure, he fronted up and sounded reasonably confident explaining what was happening at the time.

But the media should never have allowed him to become a star.

The only question at the time of the explosion was "how, in this day and age, does a coal mine explode killing 29 men?"

Whittall was in charge of the company. In the absence of any other information he should have been regarded as responsible at least until the facts could be reliably established.

And before anyone says he was only chief executive for a couple of months before the explosion, let's put that myth to bed right away - Whittall had been the mine manager from 2005.

He was responsible for the mine's development. He knew everything about it.

So why was he given the benefit of the doubt for so long?

The answer to that question goes to the heart of the issue.

As a rule, the media have tended to take the word of corporates and company men. As a society, we've bought the line that because they invest in businesses and generate employment, they are doing something beneficial. They are doing something in the public good.

Listen to the words used to describe employers. They are described as "creating jobs".

These words have been carefully chosen by the business establishment. They are intended to give a moral edge to business and conceal the self-interest that business has at its heart.

"Ooh look, they're gonna create some more jobs. Yippee! There'll be a job for me."

Of course it's good when new investment comes along and more people can find work as a result. But hold on. Businesses don't "create" work to be nice. They employ people so they can get stuff done, earn some revenue and make a profit. The more profit, the more successful they are regarded as being.

Now, don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with profit. Except when it is valued above all else.

And this, according to the royal commission, was the problem with Pike River. They put production needs ahead of the safety of the workforce.

This should come as no surprise. That's what business does when it is struggling financially. Its priority is revenue and profit.

The reason why Whittall was treated the way he was at the time of the explosion in November 2010 is exactly the same reason why the explosion happened in the first place.

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We've spent the last 30 years giving a much higher priority to what business has to say than any other voice.

And the consequence of that?

Things that don't satisfy the self- interest of business, but which give protection to workers and communities, have been slowly whittled away.

The two biggest examples are our health and safety laws, especially enforcement of them, and the role of unions as a voice for workers.

And we all bought into it.

Look what has happened with health and safety. How many times do you hear in the media business representatives complaining about "compliance costs"?

I know exactly what they mean when they do. They are talking about things like workplace health and safety.

And how often do you hear someone claim that you can't do anything risky these days because of health and safety rules?

Health and safety has become the butt of jokes because the business establishment wants to devalue and marginalise it in the minds of most people.

Along with this, the department we rely on to enforce workplace health and safety has been run down. Today we have about a third of the number of health and safety inspectors we did 20 years ago.

And then, as I've talked about before, we've run down the very idea that workers might have a say on things that affect them at work. We've given the boss the whip hand.

I don't think it's too dramatic to say we all bear some responsibility for Pike River.

And so Pike River must be a turning point.

Just as we must be more critical of profit-makers who claim to be acting in the public interest, businesses must realise they are part of a wider social contract.

That in return for letting the entrepreneurs, the investors, the innovators and even the money men go forth and do their business, they have a responsibility to ensure those they hire, those they sell to and the neighbourhoods they operate in are safe and healthy.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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