Who’s to blame for the Pike River mine tragedy?

Now that we are going back in, the really big question over blame is again being raised by hurt and angry families and by others keen to point the finger at who is ultimately responsible for the loss of the 29 men underground at Pike River.

Families are expecting criminal proceedings on the back of the evidence they hope to find with Andrew Little’s mine re-entry.

Judith Collins was Minister of Police at the time of the Pike River disaster and she was interviewed by Duncan Garner on the AM show. I was very disappointed to hear Collins call Peter Whittall the villain, as I genuinely like her and consider her to be a diligent minister, but in this, she is quite wrong.

In one breath, Judith says that responsibility for not to attempting a rescue mission at Pike, lay with her boss at the time, John Key, who made that very important decision. Despite the police being in charge of the disaster and reporting to Collins, despite being well briefed and travelling several times to the disaster site, Collins acknowledges that Key was ultimately responsible for the decision about if and when a rescue was attempted. When told by Garner that Little had said the mine was actually safe to enter, Collins said:  quote.

That’s certainly not the advice we had at the time,” said Ms Collins, when pressed on the issue by Duncan Garner. “You’d need to take it up with who was in charge at the time. John Key was the Prime Minister.” End of quote.

End of story, all well and good?  Well no, because Collins does not apply that same logic to Peter Whittall, who she calls out as the villain of the disaster because in the next breath she goes on to say. Quote.

I think Peter Whittall was the person who has the most responsibility in this, and if there’s any evidence that comes out of this mine showing that there should be a prosecution, and then I think we should get on with it,” Ms Collins said. End of quote.

Here is the double standard: Whittall also had bosses that he regularly reported to, and took instructions from, over his six years at Pike River mine.  Since his appointment as Chief Executive at Pike River Mine the previous month Whittall’s boss was the Pike River Mine Board of directors. A newspaper reported that the Board had not taken their health and safety responsibilities seriously, indeed the chair actually threw Whittall under the bus.  Quote.

The “horrified” chairman of the Pike River Coal board claims he would have taken immediate action if he had known about safety problems plaguing his company’s mine.

Pike River Coal chair John Dow this afternoon this afternoon admitted miners were in danger at his company’s explosion-hit West Coast mine.

He said management, including former chief executive Gordon Ward and mine manager Peter Whittall, had kept safety problems from the company’s board.

“If I’d known it, we would have done something about it.”

Rebecca McFie in her book ‘Tragedy at Pike River Mine’ points out that experienced mining consultant Dave Stewart produced detailed mining reports in early 2010 after John Dow had suggested management use his expertise when he discussed the issues they raised with him.  The Board was lax.  It had a health and safety committee that had not met for 13 months, had the committee read any of the detailed independent reports produced they would have been aware of the inadequacies with Pike’s gas detection and ventilation systems and that the ventilation shaft was not a suitable emergency exit. Pike’s insurer Hawcroft Consulting was one independent reviewer and they had completed a comprehensive risk survey in mid 2010 but the Board did not bother to read it. Ignorance was no excuse.

Whittall bears a huge responsibility for his part in the disaster, of course he does; his failings are well documented in the Royal Commission and Rebecca McFie’s book. The fact that he left the mining industry altogether, for aged care, indicates that neither he, nor any prospective employer, has confidence in his mining expertise.

Whittall made many mistakes, but ultimately, the Board was responsible for what transpired at the Pike River mine.

As Collins argued to her advantage, the buck does indeed stop at the top.  A newspaper reported that the Royal Commission into the Pike River mine disaster held the Board responsible, saying they had prioritised profit over worker safety. Quote.

The former directors of Pike River Coal have rejected the suggestion by the Royal Commission the company prioritised profits over worker safety.

The Royal Commission released its findings into the mine disaster earlier this month, slamming management for not properly assessing the health and safety risks its workforce was facing. End of quote.

If anyone still has doubts about the contribution to the disaster made by the behaviour of the Pike River Board of directors, they should remember that Pike River Board’s carelessness was so bad that it provoked a law change so that, now, directors have no excuse for not taking their health and safety responsibilities seriously; they can be found personally liable, be sent to prison and heavily fined.

Rebecca McFie agrees with the Royal Commission on who is ultimately at fault, concluding that failures on every level, including our government, contributed to it.  Quote.

Drawing on more than 100 interviews, it supports the conclusions of last year’s royal commission report, which blamed the board and management of Pike River Coal for repeatedly cutting corners on safety in the interests of profit and Labour Department inspectors for failing to take action. End of quote.

The really, really big lesson that the Pike River mine disaster taught us was to make sure that directors know that they, first and foremost, are responsible for the health and safety of all their employees, no matter how large or how small the business and no matter how safe or how dangerous its operations.


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