Light at the end of tunnel

By Aaron van Delden


ALL EYES will be on the New Zealand Government as it responds to the Pike River mining disaster, says Wanganui-based mine safety consultant Dave Feickert.

A delegation of Chinese government officials and coal-industry executives arrived in New Zealand on Saturday to review the Royal Commission report into Pike River.

Mr Feickert said it was not just the Chinese who were taking an interest in the report's findings. Every mining industry in the world was taking note of the Government's response.

The Government has promised to implement the 16 recommendations set out in the Royal Commission's report, addressing systemic failures in the regulation of workplace health and safety, by end of this year.

Mr Feickert said the response to Pike River had been slow: "It shouldn't have taken two years to get to this point."

On November 19, 2010 the Pike River coal mine exploded, with 29 men underground dying from the blast or the toxic atmosphere. Two men in the access drift, some distance from the mine's workings, managed to escape.

Mr Feickert has returned from China, where he consults with the Chinese Government on mine safety, before discussions with stakeholders in the body-recovery plan he has developed with two colleagues.

The three internationally recognised mining experts have been working with the families of the 29 dead miners on a recovery operation.

Former British mine inspector Bob Stevenson, British mining engineer David Creedy and Mr Feickert spent five days in Greymouth last year reviewing the findings of the Royal Commission's report and plans to recover the miners' bodies.

They concluded the area where the men died could be reached.

But Mr Feickert said it was impossible to assign a time frame to the body-retrieval plan.

Talks with Pike River's new owner, Solid Energy, and the Mines Rescue Service within weeks would address re-entry to the mine's 2.3km access drift, Mr Feickert said.

"Mainly because there's some evidence there may be some bodies in that section," he said.

Access to worksites in the mine was "technically possible", but Mr Feickert said it was unlikely the explosion site next to the ventilation shaft would ever be reached again.

He was critical of the restructuring in the late 1990s of the inspectorates for mining and oil and gas, when they were taken over by the Department of Labour and more than 10 inspectors were laid off.

The move left just one inspector to oversee the oil and gas sector and two in charge of mining.

Mr Feickert said it was essential to involve the workforce in health and safety discussions through a feedback system - a bottom-up, instead of top-down, approach.

Mr Feickert became interested in workplace safety after finishing his tertiary studies.

Having completed a BA in Asian Studies and English at Victoria University of Wellington in 1967, Mr Feickert travelled to Europe. He became aware of fundamental issues with workplace health and safety while employed in factories and as a lorry driver in Britain. That spurred further study, in safety engineering, at the University of Birmingham.

He has worked as a mine safety consultant, principally based in Beijing, since 2003.

- Wanganui Chronicle

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