Govt makes moves on mine safety

By Derek Cheng

The low number of safety inspectors in the mining and petroleum sectors was highlighted in the recent Pike River Mine inquiry. Photo / Iain McGregor
The low number of safety inspectors in the mining and petroleum sectors was highlighted in the recent Pike River Mine inquiry. Photo / Iain McGregor

The Government is expanding the number of safety inspectors it has in the mining and petroleum sectors, partly in response to the disaster at the Pike River coal mine in November that claimed 29 lives.

The move will be welcomed by opposition parties, which have repeatedly called for more safety action rather than awaiting the outcome of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River incident.

The Government currently has three safety inspectors: two for the mining sector (although one of these positions is currently vacant) and one for petroleum.

Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson this afternoon announced a new High Hazards Unit - at an additional cost of $1.5 million a year - which will have eight inspectors: a chief inspector and three inspectors for each of the mining and petroleum sectors.

The funding will cover three support staff as well.

Ms Wilkinson said a review last year of health and safety and environmental legislation for offshore petroleum recommended three inspectors to algin with international comparisons.

A Department of Labour review into the inspectors at Pike River also found the need for a national reporting structure and better auditing of health and safety systems.

"In particular, it recommended that general audits be incorporated into the inspectorate work plans and that a national reporting structure be adopted, led by a Chief Inspector of Mines,'' a cabinet paper said.

"Further recommendations included strengthening the relationship with Australian regulators, improving the professional development of inspectors, and strengthening work with industry to develop codes and standards.''

Ms Wilkinson said the tragedy at Pike River was "certainly a catalyst for the department to take a close look at what resources and expertise it has available to the mining sector''.

She said the review also found that that Pike River mine's two inspectors were "competent, thorough, and engaged frequently''.

The department review also found a fragmented approach to high hazard planning and coordination at present; limited capacity and capability to deal effectively with high hazard industries; limited information and knowledge about high hazard activities and operators; missed opportunities to work with regulators, inspection bodies and operators.

Ms Wilkinson said the unit will initially focus on the mining and petroleum/geothermal industries, but it could be expanded in the future to take on other sectors if required, she said.

Green Party MP Kevin Hague, who is based on the west coast, has repeatedly questioned the minister in the House over the state of mining safety and regulations and demanded immediate action to improve mine safety.

Last week during question time he raised several aspects at the Pike River mine, including "inadequate gas drainage, drilling next to cavities filled with pressurised flammable gases ... and the inadequate provision for escape from the mine''.

Ms Wilkinson replied that the Royal Commission would consider evidential issues, but in response to other questions she said that the department was taking a "close look at the resources and expertise ... to ensure it can carry out its role of overseeing the mining sector''.

She said today that the Government would still await the findings of the Royal Commission before making regulatory changes.

- NZ Herald

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