Robin Hughes, the former chief inspector of coal mines told the Royal Commission into the tragedy today that “The explosion at Pike River mine..had its origins in the repealing of the Coal Mining Act and regulations in 1993.”
The commission is inquiring into the disaster at the West Coast coal mine in November last year which left 29 miners and contractors dead.
Mr Hughes, who has over 40 years of coal mining experience, criticised mine safety changes made by the National Government in the 1990’s.
“The unwillingness of government officials up to and including the Prime Minister of the day to act on advice offered by a number of individuals resulted in the loss of a robust coal mines inspectorate, staffed by the most experienced and skilled personnel available,” he said.
Mr Hughes said once mines’ inspectors became part of the Occupational Health and Safety (OSH) and the Department of Labour the “proactive” inspecting of coal mines greatly reduced.
“The OSH view was that workplace health and safety was primarily the responsibility of the mine’s operators,” he said.
“The inspectorate changed from being an active and expert participant in coal mining safety to a reactive and substantially less well qualified organisation,” Mr Hughes said.
“It became an ambulance at the bottom of the cliff and not a fence at the top.”
The testimony of Robin Hughes backs up claims made in the media following the Pike River disaster that health and safety in the New Zealand mining industry has gone backwards since the independent inspectorate was abolished and the industry was allowed to effectively police itself.
While this information has been widely circulated, the really explosive testimony will come when the actual health and safety practices onsite are detailed. Most of this information has been kept out of the media to-date but once it is out, the public may have a different perception about what caused the explosion and if it could have been prevented.