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Pike River Mine Disaster

Martyn Gomersall talks about responsibility and legacy

An ineffective safety communication and unresponsive management in a hazardous industry is a recipe for disaster as we shall see from this tragic event in the New Zealand mining industry.

CallConfidential – Martyn Gomersall

The mining industry, as we know, is a hazardous one as demonstrated on the news from time to time and especially where there are large numbers of workers involved or a drama ensues in the form of brave rescue attempts. The Copiapó mining disaster in Chile during 2010 is an example of such drama. In this instance all 33 of the trapped men were individually hoisted to safety through a hole barely 2 feet in diameter is an example of extreme ingenuity, bravery and a public relations triumph.

Not all mine workers are quite so fortunate though and in the following occurrence 29 brave men lost their lives in a totally unnecessary loss of life; unnecessary because the criticisms and complaints of those same workers were totally ignored.

The tragedy occurred on the 19th of November 2010 on New Zealand’s South Island when a large methane (and probably a coal dust explosion) occurred deep inside the colliery resulting in the death of the 29 miners, one of whom was only 17 years old, and two very lucky survivors.

Whilst the exact ignition source of the methane explosion is not known the failings of management prior to the explosion are now well documented and in the public domain thanks to the Royal Commission of Inquiry led by Justice Graham Panckhurst and the two volumes of report running to hundreds of pages.

These failings began with the directors and senior managers of the mining company who failed to exercise effective safety governance within the company and in the developing mine and a management who abdicated their safety responsibilities to people much further down the hierarchy; failing either to seek their advice, or to heed the advice of the subject experts who were called in prior to the disaster.

Other failings highlighted were a lack of an adequate safety management system, incompetent managers, lack of experience among many underground workers, a lack of adequate planning, differing standards for employees and contractors, evidence of tampering with safety devices, poorly planned and executed ventilation, use of contraband underground, poor government regulations, failure to take action on serious safety issues raised by workers… the list just goes on and on.

One failure I want to particularly highlight here is the reluctance of senior managers to read reports or listen to experienced workers when they raised serious safety issues particularly about the lack of adequate ventilation in the mine or the numerous occurrences of small methane ignitions which were nevertheless significant enough to raise concern among the experienced miners at the coalface.

In evidence to the inquiry were a number of shift reports which raised the issue of ventilation, methane emissions, lack of gas detectors and workers disabling methane detectors on mining equipment, so that production could be maintained in accordance with the wishes of senior management. One hand written report submitted in evidence states:

“… get the dam (sic) ventilation sorted out so we can cut coal, this ventilation issue has dragged on for 2½ bloody years.”

That report was written just four weeks before the disaster occurred!

Space is limited here to go into a lot of the detail on this tragedy (you have to see my case study presentation for that) but one thing is clear, if you report safety issues to your supervisor and managers and they react by ignoring it or with a lethargic response then you need to go to a new level of reporting serious safety issues. If your company is affiliated with a confidential reporting scheme then you need to report the issue to that level; if your company is not a member of a confidential reporting scheme then you need to encourage them to do so.

Likewise, managers and supervisors should not shirk from their responsibilities on Safety Governance; it is an unescapable responsibility for those in management and supervisory roles to know what safety issues there are and to do all in their power to rectify them at the earliest possible moment.

Nothing good can come from shirking your safety responsibilities, as we have seen from this particular disastrous event… If you are in a senior management position you need to know your Safety Governance Roles and enforce them diligently.

The final analysis I will leave to the enquiry chairman who summed up as follows:

“The (River Pike) company did not have a clear strategy from the board that set out its vision, objectives and targets for health and safety management. It did not treat health and safety as a key corporate risk and prioritise the development of an integrated health and safety management system”

Don’t let that legacy be your legacy…

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
The Pike River Mine disaster was a coal mining accident that began on 19 November 2010 in the Pike River Mine, 46 kilometres (29 mi) northeast of Greymouth, in the West Coast region of New Zealand’s South Island. A methane explosion occurred in the mine at approximately 3:44 pm (NZDT, UTC+13). At the time of the explosion 31 miners and contractors were present in the mine. Two miners managed to walk from the mine; they were treated for moderate injuries and released from Greymouth Hospital the next day. The remaining 16 miners and 13 contractors,[2] often referred to as the twenty-nine,[3] were believed to be at least 1,500 metres (4,900 ft) from the mine’s entrance.[4]
Following a second explosion on 24 November at 2:37 pm, the 29 remaining men were believed by police to be dead.[5] Police Superintendent Gary Knowles, officer in command of the rescue operation (Operation Pike) said he believed that “based on that explosion, no one survived.”[6] A third explosion occurred at 3:39 pm on 26 November 2010,[7] and a fourth explosion occurred just before 2 pm on 28 November 2010.[8] According to the new mine owner, Solid Energy, the bodies of the 29 miners who died there may never be recovered.[9]
The Pike River Mine incident ranks as New Zealand’s worst mining disaster since 1914, when 43 men died at Ralph’s Mine in Huntly. It also resulted in the country’s worst loss of life caused by a single disaster since the 1979 crash of Air New Zealand Flight 901, although it was surpassed four months later by the February 2011 Christchurch earthquake.[10]

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