This week I am back in Greymouth once more. I guess I am providing support for my wife, who in turn is helping to organise support for the victims of the Pike River mining disaster. The Pike River mining company had just been put into receivership and the impact of this move on the surviving workers was expected to be quite severe. Not just on the families and surviving employees, but the whole town and even the NZ economy will suffer.
Just a few metres away from my wife’s office TV crews had already set up their gear, preparing for the evening news.
On the drive down we had been listening to a radio interview with the owner of a local building company who explained that the October and November invoices had not yet been paid. As unsecured creditors they stood to lose a lot of money. That on top of the fact that three of his men were amongst the deceased. When I dropped my wife off at her office and found that I had parked next to one of his trucks, the whole story seemed to move much closer to home.
There had been an excellent letter published in this week’s issue of “The Listener”. A consultant in mine safety described the principle upon which the system used to be based as a “three-legged stool”. The legs consisted of the mining company itself, a government inspection service which provided independent, expert mine safety inspectors, plus similar inspectors or auditors provided by the union. In the last decade or so, the writer explained, two of those legs had been removed. The mine safety inspectors had disappeared, presumably for cost reasons, as had the union inspectors. He felt that the upcoming enquiry should start by looking at the system under which the company was operating, not the specific causes of this particular event.
It is an interesting point of view and I think I agree with him, that the system should be a major focus of the review. However, there are alternative approaches to safety which I believe can be equally effective.
I used to work in the pulp and paper industry, at NZ’s largest mill. Safety was a major concern as the work was frequently hazardous, whether you were working in the forest or with the heavy machinery or toxic chemicals in the mill. Certainly there were rules and regulations to follow, but I don’t ever recall meeting an inspector. Safety was however a big deal. There was a “no blame” approach: people were encouraged to report minor incidents, near misses and potential hazards, directly to their supervisor. There were safety officers and staff representatives, but their role was more that of training and advice than inspection. People were responsible for their own safety, and as a manager I was responsible for ensuring they had a safe environment. It worked. My department (over a little over 100 people) managed to work more than 1.5 million hours without a single lost time accident, more than 7 years!
I guess the system really boiled down to the values of the company, coming right from the very top. The approach was very effective, even if it was not as extreme as that followed by a different company that a chemical engineering friend of mine worked for. As General Manager, he was risking getting the sack if any of his staff had a lost time accident! It did help to focus attention on safety, he explained (as you could imagine).
The last really big disaster to hit Greymouth was the accident at Cave Creek in 1995 when 14 young people lost their lives after a viewing platform collapsed. Most were students at the polytech here (as was my son at the time, doing the same course). During the subsequent enquiry, systems also came under the microscope. However, in that case the lawyer acting for the CEO of the Department of Conservation managed to convince the enquiry that because it was a systems failure, no blame should be attached to the CEO. Amazing! I suspect that if it had been the private sector such a decision would have been questioned. To anyone who knows much about quality assurance, for example, that conclusion was astonishing.
I followed that Cave Creek enquiry very closely at the time. I’ll also be very interested in the coming Pike River enquiry, especially to see whether the enquiry team can muster the technical competence to get to the bottom of the real issues or, as in the case of Cave Creek, lawyers win the day.
I worked for a brief time with a specialist in industrial safety, a man called Trevor Kletz, who spent much of his life trying to create a safer working environment in proces plants. He used to say that we pay such a high price for accidents that we must learn from them.