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Pike River inquiries put health and safety in spotlight

THE DOMINION POST - THURSDAY 29 DECEMBER 2011


While many of us go away over Christmas there will be significant anxiety on the part of those involved in the Pike River Mine tragedy. Readers, of course, will know that on 19 November 2010, a methane-fuelled explosion at the Pike River coalmine trapped 29 men inside. Three subsequent explosions rendered it certain that the men could not have survived.

The remains of the 29 miners are still in the mine to this day because it has not been considered safe to recover their bodies. The explosion, the deaths of the 29 men, and the waiting period for recovery have all had an enormous impact on New Zealand. There are now three inquiries into what occurred; a Royal Commission of enquiry, a police investigation and a Labour Department inquiry.

In the old days before ACC came in, people who were injured or who died in tragic situations such as this could sue responsible parties for negligence.

These claims were of significance; enormous sums of money could be recovered. Often a successful claim was paid by an insurance company standing behind the negligent party. However, the downside was that, where a person was severely injured or died and no negligence was involved, or where there was no money in the wrongdoers’ pockets, there was no compensation.

With the advent of ACC and the more recent introduction of the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 (the HSE Act), public protection relies largely on prosecutions under the HSE Act.

The HSE Act places obligations on an employer to provide a safe place of work. If the workplace is found to be unsafe then there are different levels of offending and penalties that may be imposed. Some offending requires knowledge of likely outcomes, but other offences do not require knowledge – these carry lesser penalties.

Those who know that their actions or inactions are reasonably likely to cause serious harm and who act or fail to act anyway, may be imprisoned for up to two years; or fined up to $500,000. Those who breach the provisions of the HSE Act in other, perhaps negligent ways, may be fined up to $250,000.

In the case of the Pike River mine, former Chief Executive Peter Whittall has been prosecuted and faces 12 charges, reportedly linked to failures of methane explosion management, strata management, ventilation management and mitigating the risk and impact of an explosion. Whittall has been subjected to lengthy questioning relating to these matters throughout the year-long Royal Commission of inquiry into the tragedy.

The matter is now before the courts and it will be interesting to see what the ultimate decision is. Whittall has said he will vigorously defend the charges. Court action has been adjourned until the end of January 2012.

The Labour Department has not yet had the benefit of hearing the outcome of the Royal Commission, which is ongoing. The charges against Whittall were brought prior to the Commission’s completion in order to meet the applicable legislative timeframes.

In its investigation of the tragedy, the Labour Department had to decide where responsibility lay and accordingly where to focus its prosecution. It has decided to focus on Mr Whittall, Pike River Coal, and VLI Drilling, the company that operated a drill rig used in the mine.

Whittall has claimed he would never do anything to put men who worked with him at risk. He says he will fight being scapegoated for the disaster. However, 29 people lost their lives.

Certainly health and safety issues are at the forefront of this process.

The inquiries and the prosecution are very important to not only those directly involved but to all of New Zealand. We are a caring society. We want to ensure we have safe workplaces for employees who trust that to be the case.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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