The Pike River Coal mine disaster on New Zealand’s West Coast has focused international attention on the extractive industry, and mostly for the wrong reasons.  The investigation into the event by the Department of Labour (now Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment [MBIE] ) and the subsequent Royal Commission of Enquiry identified poor regulatory oversight by the Mining Inspectorate, inadequacies of the self regulatory model of health and safety compliance generally within the industry, a lack of management oversight and commitment to health and safety within the company, and substandard practices by the workforce. While the mining community of the West Coast, and indeed the wider community awaits the outcome of the deliberations of the group of mining experts evaluating the options for recovering the bodies of the 29 miners that remain in the mine, the industrial community waits to see the government’s response to the 16 recommendations of the Royal Commission into the disaster.

The first steps have already been taken.

  • A High Hazard Unit was created within the Workplace Safety Group of the Department of Labour to monitor and enforce safety standards in the Mining, Petroleum, and Geothermal industry sectors.
  • Experienced Mining Industry personnel from Australia have been recruited to senior positions in the High Hazard Unit.
  • The NZ Government has announced that a new Crown Agency responsible for the administration of health and safety legislation will be established by late 2013, and the role of the Regulator will be transferred from the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment to that agency.
  • Discussion is occurring around the need for the creation of an offence of corporate manslaughter as currently exists in the United Kingdom.
  • The development of a Code of Practice to guide company directors on good governance in managing health and safety risks is supported by the NZ Institute of Directors.
  • The Independent Health and Safety Task Force commissioned by the Government has consulted widely throughout NZ and received over 400 independent submissions covering a range of topics relating to the creation of a national health and safety infrastructure and the implementation of effective strategies. This Task Force is due to report to the Government in April 2013.
  • The recommendations of the Pike River Royal Commission, and weight of submissions to the Independent Task Force identify the need for greater knowledge, skill, and experience in both the head office and branches of the Health and Safety Inspectorate.
  • The Workplace Labour Group (Inspectorate) has publicised the fact that they are focusing on the five known high hazard industries, which includes Mining.
  • Struck by moving objects (including both fixed and mobile plant), falls from height, health impairment and deaths from occupational disease (including cancers, respiratory disease, and ischaemic heart disease) are focus areas for workplace monitoring and “best practice” standards enforcement by the Inspectorate. These foci all relate to hazards found in the mining industry.

The implications for the Industry are clear. The consequences of failing to achieve best practice standards in all areas will be expensive.

Key action areas for improvement are;

  • Leadership in health and safety from the board of directors / company directors downwards.
  • Active management of contractors and subcontractors.
  • Guarding of fixed plant and machinery.
  • Management of risks around operation of mobile plant.
  • Monitoring of employee health, including drug and alcohol risk management.

Rowly Brown – Health & Safety Specialist