Clarky's Comment - November 2012 - Learning From Pike River

This month I focus on a few key points taken from the Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy and try to relate them to our own industry:

  1. This is the 12th inquiry into coal mining disasters in New Zealand. Why are we not learning from past failings? In forestry we have quite a strong safety culture established with most contractors and workers. Accidents and near misses are being reported. But does management commit the time and energy to make the most of near-miss reports, particularly those that, if not for good fortune, could have resulted in death or serious injury? These are free lessons. Surely if we take the time to understand the fundamental causes of such incidents and change processes or behaviour we can prevent injury or deaths in the future.
  2. There was plenty of warning about actual and potential methane build-up – but also lots of production pressure from management and incentives on workers to produce. The Commission says that mining should have been stopped while risks were assessed and safety measures put in place. As a nation of mainly small and medium enterprises (SMEs) management is typically quite stretched, keeping our respective businesses afloat financially. But let's step back and look at what can happen when things go wrong from a safety perspective. Keeping Pike River Ltd afloat financially has been the last thing on the mind of its Board and executive over the past two years.
  3. The Department of Labour failed in its job as a regulator. We are already seeing some changes and reaction to this within the Labour section of MoBIE (formerly the DOL), and we may yet see the establishment of a stand alone entity focused solely on health and safety regulation. Business managers and directors are effectively on notice that MoBIE (Labour) will be more aggressive than in the past in prosecutions where there is evidence of failings in safety systems and/or leadership.
  4. More worker participation in managing health and safety is needed. This is a bit of a no-brainer isn't it. Those most exposed to hazards are in the best position to both identify the risks and suggest remedies to isolate or remove them. It is management's job to ask and act.
  5. Directors must take responsibility: "The board needed to have a company-wide risk framework and keep its eye firmly on health and safety risks. It should have ensured that good risk assessment processes were operating throughout the company. An alert board would have ensured that these things had been done and done properly. It would have familiarised itself with good health and safety management systems. It would have regularly commissioned independent audit and advice. It would have held management strictly and continuously to account."

The Royal Commission acknowledges the other major piece of work under way to examine and make recommendations on New Zealand's Health and Safety, that is the Independent Task Force on Workplace Health and Safety. The Consultation Document identifies areas for potential step-change in workplace safety in New Zealand. There is clearly no single "bullet" but when we look at NZ industrial accident statistics relative to UK and Australia in particular, it is equally clear that behaving as we have been in the past is not an option either.

The forest industry is classified as a high ACC claim industry. We can expect increased focus from the regulator. If we needed a reason to take safety leadership and systems improvement seriously outside of the clear evidence that safe workplaces are also more productive and profitable, then we now have it.