Pike River project was doomed

GORDON BURNSIDE
Last updated 07:53 13/11/2012
pike stand
FAIRFAX NZ
The Pike River mine, now closed, was an accident waiting to happen, according to some commentators and experts.

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OPINION: Theorising is not a bad pastime, quite enjoyable in fact, and one can reflect on what might have been for hours to good effect.

I was theorising on how different the oil industry might have been for New Zealand if a dud explosive charge had actually exploded after it was ordered pulled from the bottom of an offshore well only one hour after failure.

There was a mandatory two-day wait and a lengthy and expensive procedure to follow, but that would have meant missing the deadline. Interesting word, but that was way back in the early days and long forgotten because it didn't explode, the well was brought in on schedule and we all live happily ever after.

Some, including me, say nothing much has changed, and there's still always someone there who can make the call to bend the rules and get the result. It's how the West was won, it's human nature and it's largely why we've moved out of the caves. There's always business to be had and profit to be made. And so to theorise a little on the Pike River tragedy; that mine venture seemed to be doomed from day one, with crisis following calamity a recurring theme. More investors were found each time and the originals leaned on ever harder.

In the end they all knew the reality - the financiers, shareholders, management, consultants, contractors, specialists, miners, labourers, survivors and especially those who perished. They knew that, unless they were able to fill those first wagons with coal and get them to Lyttelton, the Pike River mine was over; their money lost, jobs gone, machines repossessed and homes sold to pay for it.

Was it the suits or shareholders who went down that mine and covered the gas detectors and other safety devices? Was it the workers themselves? Or was it the grim reaper? Did they know there were dangerous levels of gas in there? Of course they did but they decided to chance it. To them it was the job itself, the challenge, the financial survival which took on total importance in their lives and no amount of regulation would or will ever change what men think in those circumstances.

Now the perception is that New Zealand is way behind the rest of the world in workplace safety, but I'd say that's only in comparison with the developed world and we're seeing the result. As an example of how safe it now must be in the developed world, Australia is only months into a $20 billion- plus coal-seam gas project. Stage one is 16 per cent over budget already and hardly any progress has been made.

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Safety and procedure to ensure safety regulation compliance has strangled the project. For example, a project manager carries a radio, primarily to communicate with the work teams. It is on an open channel used by everyone on site. The manager routinely needs to walk from the site office to a nearby work site. He must radio the planned foot route and purpose and receive any applicable hazard warnings and get clearance.

He must radio that he has left the site office and receive clearance to proceed. That starts at the first hazard, a downward stairway, which requires a call from the top and then the bottom. The second hazard, a site-road crossing, requires a call to advise the road must be traversed on foot. The radio operator has to call all vehicles and advise there is a pedestrian about to negotiate the traverse, and the location, then call the walker back with clearance to proceed.

The walker crosses the road, along with a chicken presumably, and advises the radio operator, who can now broadcast the all-clear to all vehicles. Believe it or not, there are still several more radio calls to make and receive before the walker reaches the work site. On arrival he finds the team busy having a toolbox meeting on safety issues instead of working.

This particular manager says it's virtually impossible to find any gap in radio traffic to deal with any work issues. Our ex- manager reported the final straw was a visit to the site toilet. In the cubicle an instruction had appeared which showed, step by step, how to produce a stool! That effectively read the last wipes over that dump, as far as he was concerned.

No amount of money could compensate him for the collective, crushing weight on his outstanding will and ability to achieve something in his work.

Now the jury's back on Pike River, the lawyers have had their say and Parliament will pass a raft of new safety laws. The politicians will adopt 28 of the 29 recommendations, blame profit but prosecute the scapegoat and nothing will really change.

The prophet now says it will effectively close the door on underground mining in this country but asks, was it really worth the lives of those 29 poor souls and all that money to save the few native possums an opencast mine might have annoyed?

Have your say on facebook.com/burnside.of.life

- Taranaki Daily News

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