OPINION: The Royal Commission that inquired into the Pike River coal mine disaster was the 12th commission of inquiry into coal-mining disasters in the 130-year history of such mining in New Zealand.
As the commission notes, this suggests that the country fails to learn from the past. The scale of the Pike River disaster, the worst in nearly a century, makes it imperative that this time lessons are heeded.
The failures identified by the Royal Commission indicate that there are many lessons to be learned. They begin with the company itself. It was fatally underequipped for the project, which involved establishing a new mine in difficult mining terrain.
Its financial difficulties were well-known long before the disaster and far from producing 1 million tonnes of coal a year as it had forecast it was producing barely 48,000.
It got under way, as the Royal Commission found, before it had completed the systems and infrastructure necessary to safely produce coal. A culture of putting the desire to increase production before safety developed, with horrendous results.
In the days before the first explosion, signals that there was a disaster in the making were clear. In the last 48 days before the accident, there were 21 reports of explosive levels of methane in the mine and a further 27 of potentially dangerous levels - and average of one report a day - but no miner, manager, director or safety official took any effective action.
Not only did the company itself fail in its fundamental duty to ensure that it was able to operate safely, but the Department of Labour inspectorate also fell down. As the Royal Commission notes, the Health and Safety in Employment Act of 1992 appropriately places primary responsibility for health and safety on the employer.
Unfortunately, the department wrongly interpreted that to mean that its role was reduced and it did not maintain the capacity properly to administer the statute. In the case of Pike River, the department failed to notice the many obvious shortcomings and insist that they be fixed.
The Minister of Labour, Kate Wilkinson, has accepted responsibility for her department's failure and resigned the portfolio. While some may be inclined to see this as a meaningless, token gesture, it is the correct move to take.
In taking it, Wilkinson has acknowledged that the principle that although she had no direct hand in what occurred, it happened while she was in charge and that ultimately the buck stopped with her. It is a principle not often observed in New Zealand and Wilkinson has behaved honourably in following it on this occasion.
More substantively, the Government has promised to implement 15 of the Royal Commission's 16 recommendations to improve health and safety enforcement, particularly in coal mining. It will consider the other recommendation - that to improve New Zealand's poor record in health and safety, a new Crown entity be formed to focus solely on health and safety should be established. Although the need for a new separate entity may be debatable, the general idea is sound.
More rigorous health and safety attitudes do need to be inculcated. Even without headline-making disasters such as Pike River, the rate of accidents in the workplace in New Zealand is notoriously high. It is the dark side of the country's No 8-wire, she'll be right attitude for getting things done and it is no longer acceptable.
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