Pike River Coal accident – Questions and answers
What will your investigation entail?
The Department of Labour investigates workplace accidents to determine what happened and to determine whether there were any breaches of the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992.
At Pike River, that means we will be trying to find out what led to the accident, whether anything could have been done to prevent it and what steps could be taken to prevent a similar incident in the future.
The investigation will review all interactions with the company, will involve a scene examination if possible, as well as reviewing all the information that’s been gathered since the explosion. Extensive interviews will be held – some in conjunction with the Police.
The Department will be sourcing experts in New Zealand and offshore to assist with the investigation.
It will be one of the larger investigations the Department of Labour has undertaken and we will be co-operating with the Police, the company and the Coroner to minimise disruption for witnesses.
How long will the Department’s investigation take?
Under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 the Department has up to six months to investigate an incident and to bring any charges.
How does the Department’s investigation work alongside the various other inquiries being held into the tragedy?
The Department's investigation into this matter, under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992, is separate from other investigations being carried out, although the Department may share information with other investigating agencies.
It is too early to say what, if any, enforcement action, the Department may take as a result of this investigation.
It is not necessary for the Department to wait for other agencies to complete their investigations before proceeding with any prosecution. However, the Department would consult with other agencies before doing so.
Who will be carrying out the audit of New Zealand’s underground mines?
The Department of Labour has contracted Brett Garland and Tim Watson, both Australian mining experts to audit the country’s underground mines.
The audit was announced on 29 November by the Prime Minister in response to the tragedy at Pike River coal mine. It will involve physical inspections of the mines, and a review of the health and safety systems and processes that are in place in each mine.
Read the Department’s media statement for more information on the safety audit.
How often have inspectors visited Pike River mine?
Pike River Coal is a large operator in a hazardous industry and the Department has had regular engagements with Pike River since its inception.
As part of its routine working relationship with the mine, an inspector from the Department inspected the mine on 2 November 2010. He noticed two minor mechanical hazards during the tour of the mine and the company has dealt with those issues.
How many mining inspectors are there in New Zealand and what do they do?
The Department has two Health and Safety Inspectors (Mines) and one mining expert who has managed mines overseas. They also draw on the skills and expertise of other senior health and safety inspectors with mining experience.
What does a mines inspector do?
The work of a Health and Safety Inspector (Mines) is not exclusively in underground mining operations. They also in inspect and assess compliance in open cast extraction and quarry operations.
The inspector will check that a company has appropriate processes and procedures to identify and manage hazards associated with the particular mines operation. This will usually require evidence of some form of paper based safety management system and written health and safety records.
The Inspector will ensure that the people managing hold the appropriate Certificate in accordance with Health and Safety in Employment (Mining Administration) Regulations 1996. The inspector will also check that employees are appropriately trained to be able to work safely.
Physical site inspections will consider a range of hazards in including physical, chemical and environmental hazards. A major consideration is the machine guarding of large high risk plant such as conveyors which are common in mining and are subject to extreme conditions and heavy wear. Health hazards will likely include noise and exposure to dust.
The inspector will look at mining specific hazards and in particular will consider the regulations/rules set out in Health and Safety in Employment (Mining—Underground) Regulations 1999. As an example a recent mines inspection (Not Pike River) found that there were not two outlets as required by Regulation 23. This resulted in an improvement notice being issued pursuant to the HSE Act requiring that a second outlet be provided.
Detected failures can be resolved through negotiated agreement or in more serious cases either improvement notices or prohibition notices. These are used in accordance with the Department’s Enforcement Policy “keeping Work Safe”
What health and safety rules do mines have to abide by?
All employers have duties under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 to take practical steps to ensure a healthy and safe workplace. Underground mining is a particularly hazardous industry and for this reason, in addition to the general duties required under the HSE Act, there are specific requirements for mining in the Health and Safety in Employment (Mining – Underground) Regulations 1999.
These regulations require the employer to take all practical steps to ensure (among other things):
- That a register of accidents and serious harm is kept
- That plans are made of every operation with extensive detail (outlined in section 13)
- Testing for gas levels is carried out as often as practicable
- Ventilation is provided
- Plans to withdraw personnel if ventilation fails, and that
- The Department is notified of accidents (section 10) including
- Explosion or ignition of coal dust or gas
- Unplanned outburst of gas or water
- Structural failure
- Unplanned collapse of any part of the workings
- Uncontrolled accumulation of flammable or noxious gas
- Ventilation fan failure for more than 30 minutes.
Employers are also required to take all practicable steps (among other things) to prevent ignition or combustion in a coal (or gassy) mine; test for flammable gas, make electrical equipment safe by providing disconnection or separation systems for electrical equipment; monitor machinery operations.
Who sets the legislation and regulations around mining?
The Department develops the policy for decision by the Minister of Labour and the legislation is passed by Parliament.
What can you tell us about the review of mining in 2006?
The Government ordered a review of the health and safety framework for underground mining in 2006. The context for the review was the inherently hazardous nature of underground mining, its potential for catastrophic events and public concern over two fatalities in 2006. Both involved smaller mines - Black Reef which had three staff and Roa mine which employs around 35 people.
The review identified that the performance-based approach under the Health and Safety in Employment (HSE) Act 1992 is sound. The priority issue identified was health and safety issues in small mines and the Department is implementing the Government's decisions in respect of the review. As part of this a regulation change has been approved by Cabinet to require a manager of a small mine with eight or fewer staff to hold a minimum qualification of a coal mine underviewer certificate. More information on this change is available here.
Regarding large underground mines, the review raised some issues about worker participation and the need for technical standards to support the mining regulations. This work is actively being progressed by the Department.
Five of the 17 submitters said their preferred option was for employee-elected check inspectors to be introduced. The option was not recommended by the Department because the international literature did not confirm it as necessarily the best approach in the New Zealand context, and the existing Health and Safety in Employment (HSE) Act 1992 employee participation provisions provide similar rights and functions for trained health and safety representatives.