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Action on mines shows commitment to safety

THE DOMINION POST - MONDAY 5 MARCH 2012


We will never forget the tragedy of the Pike River Mine disaster. Among other things it is a terrible reminder of what can happen in inherently dangerous workplaces. Two mines have subsequently been shut down.

Readers will be interested in the obligations employers have to protect the safety of their workers, and in the general legislative protections that exist to keep workers from danger.

The ACC scheme was enacted in 1974 to prevent accidents and to care for all who were injured by accidents. The scheme signalled a significant shift in how New Zealand dealt with the consequences of personal injury. It was a move away from a litigious, fault-based system, toward a ‘no-fault’ approach to compensation for personal injury.

But the ACC scheme was not enough in terms of workplace safety. There was not sufficient pressure on employers to maintain a safe workplace. This led to introduction of the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 (the HSE Act) which provides for significant fines and other remedies to try to keep our workplaces safe.

One of the purposes of the HSE Act is to promote excellence in health and safety management. It achieves this by giving powers to Inspectors to order workplaces to close where there is a hazard that is likely to cause harm. The Department of Labour recently took this step and temporarily closed down the Broken Hills Mine in the Coromandel Peninsula and also Solid Energy’s Spring Creek Mine near Greymouth.

The Broken Hills Mine was closed because it only had one exit and it failed to comply with regulations that prohibit certain uses of electrical equipment which rely on gas. The Spring Creek Mine was closed because it failed to report when a diesel generator caught fire injecting carbon monoxide in to the mine; and it did not take steps to resolve two other issues. The first was when one of its main fans tripped and management were not alerted for 90 minutes. The second was when an auxiliary fan tripped two days in a row, but failed to stop the mining machine it was supposed to stop.

Both mines can reopen once the inspector is satisfied that there are sufficient measures in place to eliminate any hazard or risk of harm.

Bernie Monk, Spokesman for the families of the Pike River Mine disaster, said it’s great the Government is taking mine safety seriously by suspending operations at Spring Creek. He also said he believed that miners would support the closing of a mine if need be. His comments highlight the stake that everyone has in safe workplaces.

Under the HSE Act employees are required to take all practicable steps to ensure their own safety at work and to ensure that they do not harm other employees by their own actions or inactions. Employers must provide reasonable opportunities for employees to participate in ongoing processes for improving health and safety at work. In addition, the duty of employers and employees to deal with each other in good faith extends to health and safety in the workplace.

In light of the Pike River Mine Tragedy, there have been comments that expected safety standards in mines have been raised. Solid Energy’s Chief Operating Officer Barry Bragg has commented “We recognise that expectations for underground mining have been raised substantially”. The Assistant National Secretary to the EPMU, Ged O’Connell, has commented “What we’ve got all of a sudden is a far higher threshold in terms of interpreting the current law in New Zealand”.

A partnership exists between employers, employees and the Government to promote safe workplaces. When these three groups participate, it will help keep workplaces safe.

The protection of workers’ lives and safety should not be compromised. It is important that when standards slip to an unacceptable level, Department of Labour Inspectors act decisively as in Broken Hills and Spring Creek.

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

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