Opinion: Have we learnt from the Pike River disaster?

  • 19/11/2012

Opinion by Rachel Morton

It’s two years today since 29 men died completely unnecessarily.

The findings of the Pike River Royal Commission told us the mine was unsafe and an accident waiting to happen. The findings were shocking and yet none of it shocked me. I listened to 11 weeks of evidence at the public hearings into what happened at Pike River and heard repeatedly what a death trap it was for so many reasons.

There’s nothing that can be done to go back in time, but we’re supposed to have learnt from the mistakes so this never happens again. I fear we’ve learnt nothing.

Don’t get me wrong - the Commissioners did an outstanding job on the report. They took the evidence and identified everything that went wrong and everyone who was to blame and made 16 recommendations of things that need to change. But those recommendations mean nothing if they’re not adopted.

The number one recommendation of the Royal Commission is to start a new Crown entity focused solely on health and safety. It is the one recommendation the Government hasn’t committed to. The Government says it needs “further investigating” and yet it’s the one recommendation the Government has to commit to, to make sure this never happens again.

Pike River was not inspected properly. The inspectors tasked with overseeing it were over-worked and their superiors did not understand how important their job was. They were part of large department, under pressure to save money. Coal mining wasn’t even considered one of the top five most dangerous industries in New Zealand. Not because it wasn’t – because those in charge judged danger by the number of incidents that occurred overall, not proportionate to the number of people in the industry. The Department of Labour failed these men.

The ministry now in charge of health and safety is an even bigger department. The so called ‘Super Ministry’ or Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MoBIE).

The last thing the report into Pike River says is that mining tragedies have occurred every generation and this time lessons must be learnt so this never happens again. New Zealand’s history in coal mining is shocking - far more shocking than most people probably realise. In the past 115 years, 199 men have died in five separate mine explosions.

Who’s to say in 20, 30 or 40 years, when this large ministry is looking to save money, that it won’t take funding away from health and safety and that a bureaucrat who wasn’t even born when Pike River happened will understand the importance of mine safety.

If the ministry’s sole focus isn’t health and safety, why would it make it a priority? We’ve so easily forgotten how important it is in the past, why would it be any different in the future?

The Government must adopt the recommendation to create a new crown entity focused solely on health and safety. Prime Minister John Key claims money isn’t an issue which means there’s no excuse. A separate crown entity was the number one recommendation for a reason. It is so important that it is adopted. Otherwise another group of workers next generation are being sentenced to death and 29-men have died for nothing.


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