Mines safety standards seen as 'shocking' by Australians

24 June, 2011

Australians are shocked at the gap between mines safety standards in Australia and New Zealand. Mine workers and their families have slammed safety standards as lax and described the New Zealand government as clueless over mines safety.

Australian miner Peter Satler told TVNZ's Sunday programme (12 June) that working in the Pike River coalmine was ‘an eye-opener for me, it was like going back in time really.'

Satler was a supervisor at Pike River mine until July 2009, when he left because of safety concerns. ‘There were quite a few things I saw there that sort of shocked me,' Satler said, citing particular concerns around miners starting fans in the presence of highly explosive methane gas.

In the Moranbah mine in Queensland where Slater now works, miners can't touch anything electrical unless they're qualified. In Australia, only statutory officials of the colliery can start an auxiliary fan.

Slater said that when he raised his concerns with management, he was told ‘you're not in Australia, you're in New Zealand.'

Slater also expressed concerns that gas monitoring in the mine did not include a tube bundling system that measures trends in the gases present in the mine. In Queensland it is compulsory by law to have a tube bundling system installed.

‘The whole New Zealand legislation surprised me really,' he said.

EPMU national secretary Andrew Little says that Queensland's regulations are seen as ‘virtually best practice' and that New Zealand has a ‘moral obligation' to apply them here with immediate effect.

Following on from Prime Minister John Key's admission to Australian media (21 June) that the Pike River coalmine would have been ‘illegal' in New Zealand, the union believes that the way is clear to change the laws regarding mine construction and safety in New Zealand.

Joanne Ufer, the mother of Josh Ufern, one of two Australians to die in the Pike River mine disaster, was reported on the same day in the National Business Review as saying she was surprised to hear Key's comments on mine safety.

‘If anything at all comes out of this, it should be a change in the safety standards,' she told the paper.

International safety consultant and New Zealander Dave Feikert agrees. He told TVNZ that if there had been a proper functioning mines inspectorate with a union inspectorate in place, the Pike River mine disaster would not have happened.

Carol Rose, mother of dead miner Stuart Mudge, told Radio New Zealand that Key's statements showed the New Zealand government was ‘clueless' over mines safety.

She said New Zealand miners had gone to work in Australia and found much higher standards in place. She also criticised the dismantling of a mines safety inspectorate system, which she claimed could have helped prevent the Pike River explosions.

‘Not only clueless but they actually dismantled the very system that was there to protect those workers,' Rose was reported as saying. ‘And that was just to save a few measly bucks. And now look at the cost incurred... for them being so lax.'

The EPMU, the union representing mine workers in New Zealand, has been saying the same thing for some time. ‘The overarching problem is that this is an industry that is working to a code of standards that isn't mandatory and under an inspectorate that simply isn't capable of doing its job with the resources that it's got,' says Little.

‘You've only got to do a rough and ready comparison with Australian mining regulations to know that we do things here that simply wouldn't be tolerated in Australia.'

‘We don't want a repeat, we don't want anybody else being put at risk.'