Pike River live: chronic shortage of inspectors

By Hayden Donnell

Latest updates:
Peter Whittall, Pike River chief executive. Photo / file
Peter Whittall, Pike River chief executive. Photo / file
5.15pm: Mr Firmin has concluded his evidence and been excused. The inquiry has adjourned for the day.
Pike Rive Coal chief executive Peter Whittall is set to take the witness box tomorrow morning.
5.07pm: Counsel for Pike River Coal (in receivership) Stacey Shortall is pointing to a report outlining the safety measures undertaken by the company.
Mr Firmin says he agrees the company seemed to regularly assess safety hazards.
"They were... the type of people that seemed to want to help. That took safety seriously."
5.04pm: Mr Davidson asks whether Mr Firmin has ever rejected work plans proposed by a mine company.
Mr Firmin says he has never come across a situation like that. He says mine companies submit plans and think that represents them gaining approval of a mining proceedure.
4.56pm: Lawyer for the Pike River families Nicholas Davidson QC is questioning Mr Firmin on his statements in a report prepared by Australian mining experts.

Mr Firmin told the experts he did not have time to spend two days on mine inspections, and would only be able to spend most of a day at a large mine.
He confirms his statements and says he would like to do more inspections and target specific issues such as roof support in mines. "But it's the resources thing... we do as much as we can, given the resources."

4.44pm: Mr Hampton says he is concerned underground coal mines and underground gold mines appear to be treated in the same way by mines inspectors.
Mr Firmin agrees that has been the case.
Underground coal mines are more dangerous, but both types of mines need to be inspected regularly, he says. He would like to inspect underground coal mines more regularly, but says resources are a problem.
4.39pm:Mr Hampton is looking at the membership of a mine steering group with the ability to make changes to how the New Zealand mining industry is policed.
He says people in the group with mining experience - such as Mr Firmin - were in the minority and their voices were drowned out. Mr Firmin says "we were certainly in the minority" over issues relating to the mines inspectorate, but that situation has now changed.
4.36pm:Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union counsel Nigel Hampton QC is asking Mr Firmin whether he noted the work of mine 'check inspectors' during a visit to New South Wales.
Check inspectors are workers with the power to order the evacutation of a mine if they see dangerous conditions developing. Mr Firmin says check inspectors can do valuable work. "It depends on the check inspector".

4.24pm: It appears increasingly unlikely there will be enough time for Pike River chief executive Peter Whittall to deliver testimony to the Royal Commission this afternoon.
4.09pm:Mr Firmin is describing a chronic shortage of staff in the mines inspectorate. He says things were "tough" after the retirement of a former inspector who was not replaced.
Mr Wilding points to a document showing there is a risk to the Department of Labour's reputation if it did not employ an additional mines inspector.
Mr Firmin agrees with the report's statements. He and fellow inspectors discussed the idea of appointing a chief inspector of mines, but that proposal was not adopted, he says.
4.03pm:The inquiry has resumed, with Mr Firmin confirming a long list of responsibilities given to mines inspectors.
3.42pm:The inquiry has adjourned for 15 minutes.
3.35pm:Mr Firmin says his understanding is that underground coal mines need to have a second exit. He issued an improvement notice to a small mine requiring it to build a second exit to stay open about nine months ago. The mine was not Pike River, he says.
3.22pm:Mr Firmin says limited resources forced his team to carry out risk assessments to work out which New Zealand mines should be inspected regularly.
He says he encountered an "attitude" that New Zealand mines were well managed and questioning as to why he would need to visit them three or four times a year. Because his team has limited resources, he assessed which sites had the most significant hazards.
Those sites were visited three to four times a year.
3.14pm:Health and safety representatives at underground coal mines virtually never raise concerns with inspectors, Mr Firmin says. "They all seem quite happy at their workplaces."
He says the representatives tell him they raise any health and safety concerns directly with their bosses.
3.04pm:The Department of Labour generally only receives mine plans about a month before construction is due to begin, Mr Firmin says. It has never stopped construction because of concerns with the plans submitted to it, he says.
2.57pm:Other regulatory agencies are generally not involved in the consenting process for underground coal mine construction, Mr Firmin says.
He says it would be good if mine inspectors were given mine plans and informed about any new development inside mines. "Often they won't give you that. You have to ask for it."
2.44pm: Mr Firmin says mines inspectors never carry out unannounced visits to underground coal mines. "We should do more of that."
Royal Commission counsel James Wilding asks if that creates a risk mines operators will make sure their systems are working well on the day of an inspector's visit and Mr Firmin confirms that is a possibility. "It's just something that fell away over time."
2.30pm: Mr Firmin says he was frustrated by a lack of structured professional development in his role. There is still no structured professional development programme in place, he says. He added that no review of the adequacy of inspections on New Zealand mines has been carried out since the Pike River disaster.
2.24pm:Mr Firmin says plans for him to help audit New Zealand mines have been stymied by a lack of funding.
2.22pm:It takes 12 to 18 months to train underground coal mine inspectors and there is no requirement for professional development, Mr Firmin says.
He says he recently got two days of overseas training after 10 years of pushing for it. "That was good." Mr Firmin says New Zealand mines inspectors are not trained to "audit" mines - a process which involves several people conducting systematic assessments over about a day.
2.17pm:The inquiry has resumed, with Department of Labour health and safety inspector Michael Firman still in the witness box.
1.14pm: The inquiry has adjourned for lunch and will resume at 2pm.
1.10pm: Mr Firmin says there is no formal process for reviewing the mines inspectorate's performance when there has been a serious accident or fatality in a mine.
12.59pm: Mr Firmin says no underground coal mine employee has ever rung him to raise a concern over health and safety.
12.57pm: Mr Firmin says there was little coordination between the Department of Labour and Mines Rescue on how to handle an emergency. That is something he wanted to address before the Pike River explosions, he says.
12.55pm: Royal Commission lawyer James Wilding is questioning Mr Firmin's working relationship with New Zealand Mines Rescue. Mr Firmin says he tries to visit mines rescue at least once a year. But he says there has been "so much pressure" he sometimes does not have the time to carry out that visit, he says.
12.50pm: Mr Firmin says no other Government department ever raised a concern with him over health and safety in an underground coal mine.
12.26pm: Royal Commission lawyer James Wilding asks about the comparative salaries of Government-employed mines inspectors and those working in the mining sector. Mr Firmin says inspectors can get between "fifty-something" and $76,000. He does not know what the salary would be for a similar job in the mining sector.
12.23pm: No plans have yet been made for how to deal with the loss of New Zealand's only other mines inspector, Mr Firmin says.
12.19pm: Mr Firmin says he is currently the only mines inspector at the Department of Labour. Another mines inspector left "about two weeks" ago and the department has advertised the position, he says."They did do a good job in trying to find a replacement quickly."
12.17pm: Mr Firmin says he was not responsible for inspections at the Pike River mine when it was hit by an explosion last November. He says his last inspection of the mine was in 2008.
12.07pm: Mr Firmin is explaining his process for carrying out underground coal mine inspections. He says any "proactive" inspection would be notified in advance with a mine owner. He normally spends between four and six hours underground and then advises owners of any health and safety issues he identifies.
11.53am: Department of Labour health and safety inspector Michael Firmin is in the witness box delivering a statement.
11.52am: The inquiry has resumed.
11.40am: For a full recount yesterday's proceedings at the Royal Commission of Inquiry, read Rebecca Macfie's report for The Listener
11.39am: Mr Murphy completes his evidence and the inquiry is adjourned for a 15 minutes break.
11.35am: Commissioner David Henry asks about an Australian mining expert's comment that policing mine safety in New Zealand is a "zero sum game". Mr Murphy explains any additional investment in mine safety would need to come out of the $38 million the Department of Labour allocates for health and safety. But he admits it would not need to be taken from a "frontline" service.
11.32am: Commissioner David Henry asks Mr Murphy what he meant by his statement employers should seek their own advice on safety at their coal mines. Mr Murphy says it is employers' responsibility to ensure mines are safe.

11.27am: Mr Bell follows up with a question on whether it would ever be legal for a New Zealand coal mine to stay open without a gas monitoring system in place. Mr Murphy says gas monitoring is "critical" and his understanding is coal mines would not be allowed to operate without one.
11.23am: Commissioner Stewart Bell asks Mr Murphy how many prosecutions have been launched against the New Zealand mining industry under current health and safety legislation. Mr Murphy says he does not know and will get that information.
11.13am: Department of Labour lawyer Kirsty McDonald asks Mr Murphy to read a section of the expert report. It quotes a mine inspector who believed the Pike River Coal company was voluntarily compliant with health and safety regulations. Ms McDonald also points to a section of the report showing scheduled quarterly inspections "were far from" the only contact inspectors had with Pike River.
10.55am: Mr Davidson is questioning the amount of Department of Labour funding directed at coal mine safety. Mr Murphy says resource allocation is an ongoing issue for the department and any extra funding given to coal mining would mean less going to another industry. "All government agencies are working within finite resources... It's the reality in which we are left."
10.50am: An expert report written in the wake of the Pike River disaster shows a "major gap" in mining safety measures recommended by Government and those instituted by companies, Mr Davidson says. Mr Murphy says more safety regulations will be enacted.
10.44am: Mr Murphy admits there is a conflict of interest between coal companies' economic interests and the need to establish robust health and safety measures in mines. "There is a tension, yes."
10.41am: Mr Davidson points to a "stark contrast" between the New Zealand mines inspectorate described by former inspectors Harry Bell and Robin Hughes and the one that exists today. Mr Murphy says the inspectorate, which was dismantled in the 1990s, was heavily weighted in favour of regular inspector visits. Changes to that system were aimed at mine inspectors taking on an enforcement and advisory role, he says. He says owners were charged with taking responsibility for health and safety in their mines. "I have no indication that mines cannot fulfill that role."
10.34am: Mr Davidson points to a Department of Labour report saying there is no "capability" for its staff to assess mine work plans. "It would seem this is internal recognition there is no capability to look at these work plans," he says. Mr Murphy says he cannot comment as it is not part of his role to assess mine plans.
10.26am: Mr Davidson refers to a mining safety report delivered to the Department of Labour on July 4. It quotes mine inspectors saying they are "coming up short" because of lack of resources and training, Mr Davidson says. Mr Murphy says he was concerned at the report findings and admits it identifies significant operational issues which he needs to address.
10.22am: Lawyer for the Pike River families Nicholas Davidson QC is questioning Mr Murphy's experience managing health and safety. Mr Murphy says he has had no formal mine health and safety training and does not have a background working with coal miners. Mr Davidson asks whether you can apply the same safety tests to mining as to other industries and Mr Murphy answers 'no sir'.
10.13am: Lawyers will resume their cross-examination of Department of Labour health and safety manager James Murphy at the start of day seven of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River tragedy.
Pike River CEO set to front inquiry

As New Zealand's worst mining tragedy unfolded, Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall faced cameras and answered hundreds of questions.

He was praised for his forthrightness fronting the unfolding operation aimed at rescuing the 29 miners and contractors trapped in his company's explosion-hit mine.

Today Mr Whittall is expected to face questions again - this time in the witness box at the Royal Commission of Inquiry on the Pike River tragedy.

It will be the first time he has spoken on the November disaster in months.

His statement comes after six days of witness testimony, some of which has been highly critical of the safety measures in place at the Pike River mine.

Solid Energy chief executive Don Elder was first in the witness box at the Royal Commission.

He said insufficient planning, chronic financial under-performance, and a lack of knowledge of the "complex" geology on the West Coast had the potential to cause safety risks at Pike River.

Lawyers for Pike River countered with questions about Solid Energy's purchase bid for the Pike River mine - and a suggestion Mr Elder was trying to talk down its price.

Experienced West Coast miner Harry Bell later said he had repeatedly blown the whistle on inadequate safety measures in the mine development.

Ventilation in place while he was working on drilling at the mine in 2007 was inadequate, he said.

He told Pike River's technical manager a proposal to drill through the Hawera Fault with a single drive was "nonsensical, madness", due to gas risks.

Geologist Jane Newman said she was worried about a lack geological investigation at Pike River.

Those concerns came to a head when her husband, Nigel Newman told her he was going over to Pike in July or August 2010.

She told him not to go.

The Department of Labour is expected to complete its testimony to the commission this morning.

Mr Whittall reportedly spent yesterday preparing his testimony with lawyers. He is expected to be in the witness box this afternoon.

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