Passing the buck over Pike River | The Jackal

7 Nov 2012

Passing the buck over Pike River

Yesterday, the NZ Herald reported:

National's saving grace might, however, be the bipartisan nature of the extreme deregulatory approach taken to the mining industry. The main party of the opposition, Labour, has it's hands tied over the issue and will be feeling rather uncomfortable now. After all, Labour was in power for a decade and actually bedded in those reforms rather than repealed them. The Pike River mine - which the Royal Commission report said should never have been allowed to open - opened while Labour was in power, and the responsible minister was Trevor Mallard. This is a fact pointed out by David Farrar in Armstrong on Pike River and Cameron Slater in Should more heads roll?. Having fingers pointed at the opposition will help deflect some blame. Labour leader David Shearer is promising that if any of his MPs were partly responsible for creating the conditions for the disaster then he will also take action against them. So Wilkinson may not be the final political victim of the mining tragedy - Trevor Mallard might want to consider his options.

That mining companies sometimes put profits ahead of safety will surprise no-one with the slightest knowledge of the industry's history. That successive governments in the 21st century could allow them to get away with it for so long, with the inevitable result, is the real scandal.

Trevor Mallard might want to consider his options? Bryce Edwards has clearly been sucked in by the right wings feverish spin cycle. As somebody who usually has a good handle on what's behind their propaganda, this brain fade is entirely beneath his capabilities. It appears that Edward's is buying into the latest fashionable political craze... Labour bashing.

By giving shit to previous Ministers of Labour from the Labour party, National and their propagandists hope to protect brand Key from the fallout surrounding the Commission of Inquiry's report. They also hope to protect the previous National Minister of Labour, Gerry Brownlee, who has recently been keeping a very low profile.

The other issue here is that National won't really want to implement any recommended changes within the mining industry to increase workplace safety, because that will cost money. Reducing costs is also the goal of the mining industry, because increasing workplace safety hurts the only thing they really care about, the bottom line.

Today, RadioNZ reported:

Dr Elder says despite Pike River Coal's public claims, it is apparent that the company was never representative of the industry's approach to health and safety.

Underground mining has a future in New Zealand, but putting safety first is not negotiable and the technical and economic challenges remain significant, he says.

I'm not sure what Don Elder is talking about there... The claims made by the management involved in Pike River Coal's dreadful operation basically amount to disagreeing with the Commissions findings. There denial is no surprise, because the Commissions report clearly shows that Pike River Coal put production ahead of safety. The management is therefore complicit in the deaths of 29 workers.

However I can find no reference of where they've said the lack of safety at Pike River is an industry wide problem. If they had, they would be making sure they never worked in the industry again, which makes Don Elders claim highly questionable.

Putting profit ahead of safety is a widespread problem in New Zealand, and not just within the mining industry. In my opinion, the main thing to cause the degradation of workplace safety is deregulation. Deregulation is a core belief of many right wing politicians who often promote the neo-liberal agenda without thought for the consequences. Their reduction in funding for core services means there was no proper oversight that could have prevented the Pike River disaster from occurring. Therefore the Ministers involved in making decisions to deregulate are also complicit in the deaths of 29 Pike River workers.

In fact the Commission found that a proper mining inspectorate would have likely prevented the many breaches of work place safety that eventuated in 29 lives being lost, stating in their conclusion:

The commission considers it is probable that an effective regulator would have issued a prohibition notice when Pike commenced hydro mining in September 2010 without a usable second outlet (egress) from the mine. The notice would have stopped hydro mining until the planned second intake (to double as a walkout egress) was developed and importantly would have provided the opportunity for the development of improved ventilation and methane control within the mine.

Unfortunately the right wing's deregulation and cost cutting is not limited to workplace safety in the mining industry though. Unsafe workplaces are an epidemic throughout New Zealand. In fact the prevalence of workplace safety programs was found to be the lowest in the world in 2009, with only 31% in New Zealand compared to 77% in North America. We have a workplace safety regime even lower in comparison to countries in the Middle East and Africa, prompting some people to correctly point out that workplace safety in New Zealand is comparable to those in third world countries.

A 2004 technical report (PDF) into Occupational Disease and Injury in New Zealand found:

The lack of rigorous evaluation of occupational health and safety prevention programmes is not unusual. In fact, it is not uncommon in most areas of public health. There are many reasons for this. These include lack of recognition of the need for evaluation, lack of funds set aside in intervention projects to conduct proper evaluations, difficulty identifying appropriate methods under which the evaluation could be conducted, and lack of appropriate baseline data that can be used for comparison.

The National Occupation Health and Safety Advisory Committee conclude:

New Zealand systems for surveillance of work-related disease and injury are inadequate by international standards, and in many instances the relevant information is not available, and we therefore had to make estimates using a combination of New Zealand and international data. The relevance of international data to the New Zealand situation, and the validity of the assumptions that were required to make the estimates, are uncertain in some instances. The development of effective and comprehensive New Zealand systems for the surveillance of work-related disease and injury is therefore a priority.

Little has changed since then... In fact since National initiated their policy of rampant deregulation and funding cuts, workplace safety has become even worse. Here's what NOHSAC reported (PDF) in August 2008 to the Minister of Labour:

In New Zealand, the lead agency with the responsibility and mandate for occupational health and safety and the Workplace Health and Safety Strategy (WHSS) have effectively stopped producing approved codes of practice and reduced the level of guidance material for workplaces. This is due to a combination of a lack of resources (financial and technical) and the HSE Act being effectively silent on which agency is responsible for developing and maintaining approved codes of practice and other OHS instruments.
..And the Ministry of Business Innovation & Employment report (PDF) in 2012 states:

Work-related fatality and serious injury trends are static overall and for the priority sectors – agriculture, forestry, fishing, construction and manufacturing.

Data period includes the 29 Pike River mine deaths.

So it's little wonder that the Commission of Inquiry found both a lack of governmental oversight and the company is to blame for the Pike River disaster. How exactly the government deals with this will be an interesting development, because I think most agree that Kate Wilkinson's largely meaningless resignation as Minister of Labour isn't enough.

The Royal Commission's report released on Monday found that Pike River Coal had not completed the systems and infrastructure necessary to safely produce coal, its health and safety systems were inadequate and workers were exposed to an unacceptable level of risk.

Meanwhile, six prohibition notices have been served on mines by health and safety inspectors from the High Hazards Unit of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment since the Pike River mining disaster.

A prohibition notice can stop all or part of workplace operations and are served when inspectors believe that there is a likelihood serious harm will occur.

The head of the high hazards unit, Brett Murray, says 17 improvement notices have also been issued since Pike River, primarily for Spring Creek and Huntly East mines owned by Solid Energy.

Clearly Don Elder is talking absolute bullshit and unsafe working conditions are a widespread problem throughout the mining industry in New Zealand. In fact the industry demanded and ensured deregulation in order to maximise their profits through large donations and extensive lobbying. They have been effectively gambling with the lives of their workers, with disastrous results.

Although consecutive governments have been complicit in the decline of workplace safety, it appears that some key governmental decisions specifically led to the Pike River disaster. These decisions were made while either Gerry Brownlee or Kate Wilkinson held the Minister of Labour portfolio:

  • National scraping Labour's 2008 review into mine safety and Wilkinson declining to even consider reopening it in May 2010, just six months before the mine exploded.
  • Wilkinson declining to act on requests from Union officials and DoL staff to increase the mining inspectorate.
  • Brownlee signing off on and even promoting the use of hydro mining at Pike River in 2010 when there was no adequate ventilation system to handle the increased gases, which the Commission has found was one of the main causes of the disaster.
  • National Reducing funding for the Department of Labour leading up to the disaster.

More heads should roll over the Pike River mining disaster... But somehow I doubt Gerry Brownlee will put his hand up and accept the fact that his decisions also caused the loss of 29 lives.