1 Apr 2021

Auckland port CEO's response to damning report 'utter bulls***' - injured worker's wife

From Checkpoint, 5:07 pm on 1 April 2021

The wife of an injured Ports of Auckland worker is furious about management's claims they were unaware of the extent of health and safety failings revealed this week in a highly critical report.

Following three deaths linked to the port, Auckland Mayor Phil Goff ordered the independent review. It found systemic safety failings, suspected under-reporting of accidents, with workers fearing speaking up.

Ports of Auckland chief executive Tony Gibson maintains he was not aware things were so bad and is refusing to resign, despite growing calls for him to walk.

In 2015, the port was fined $55,000 and ordered to pay $25,000 in compensation after failing to ensure the safety of a worker who was badly injured in an accident on the job.

Gibson had been the boss at the port for about three years when senior stevedore Neil Bower was injured, on 22 January, 2014.

Bower was standing on the deck of a ship to unload freight containers. The work involved using a special 5m-long pole to unlock bindings on containers stacked two or three high.

He lost his balance, fell off the deck of the boat into the water, hitting objects in the fall. His injuries included multiple fractures to his body, lacerations on his lungs, and tendon injuries. He was in hospital for three months, and his recovery treatment is ongoing.

There was supposed to be a safety rail and a specially-designed, crane-lifted safety cage, but there were neither. The setup had passed a pre-work safety inspection but it should not have.

Sentencing notes in 2015 said: "Ports of Auckland has frankly and candidly accepted the failures."

Minutes from a restorative justice session show Neil Bower was reluctant to speak freely about issues, because he feared "that might be held against" him.

Years later, in March 2021, Gibson spoke at a media conference, expressing his shock at the findings in the damning report that included a litany of health and safety shortcomings.

"I didn't know about them," he said.

But in 2017, Jo Bower emailed Gibson detailing her husband Neil's ongoing struggles since his accident.

"Neil is aghast that the unsafe work practice is still occurring with the full knowledge of management at the Ports of Auckland. I would have thought with the new H&S regulations that now means CEOs and board of directors can be held accountable that this cavalier attitude to health and safety would have ceased."

In response, Gibson said: "Your statement is very concerning to me and I'm unsure as to what you're referring to. I would remind Neil that under the new H&S regulations he also has a duty to reporting breaches to his manager so the issues can be addressed."

On Tuesday, 31 March, 2021, Gibson responded to the report which echoed concerns raised in Jo Bower's email.

"It made me feel sick and again I felt a moral obligation to find out why this is happening and make sure I can lead a programme of work that will deliver on the recommendations."

'Utter bulls---'

Speaking publicly for the first time about the issue, Jo Bower told Checkpoint Gibson's comments were "utter bulls---".

"It just made me so angry, I wanted to throw things at the television. He knows exactly what's going on down there, he just buries his head.

"It was an accident the ports were convicted on. And they certainly haven't made things easy for [Neil].

"And Tony Gibson himself, his communication is appalling. I have emailed him. He has come back with stating he's tried to contact or contacted my husband, and Neil's never had anything from him.

"Neil works three days a week, five hours a day down the port. If Tony Gibson really wanted to get hold of him to discuss issues, he knows where he is.

"When Neil had his accident, Tony Gibson sat in our house and stated that he wanted Neil to be his eyes and ears on the port, because who better to talk the talk than someone who's walked the walk.

"And that never happened."

Neil could have been a health and safety supervisor, but Jo said his work is now menial tasks.

"He's an excellent broom handle painter, he sorts rags into bags, he sweeps floors… Sometimes if he's really lucky he gets to load or unload trucks with the hoist.

"This is somebody who has worked on the waterfront for 25-plus years… You have got the best proponent within your workforce for pushing the health and safety issue, but they don't want a bar of him.

"He can't climb ladders, his balance is not good so he can't go on a ship. He would have dearly loved to have been able to do the health and safety thing, and tell new people, and even existing people that 'shortcuts are not worth it, do things properly', because you have an accident and your life's f----d."

"He's 62 now, at the time of the accident he was 55, 56. Who would employ someone of that age? He can't work back to back days. The pain, unfortunately his body doesn’t allow it. So no-one is really going to want to employ somebody like that."

She told Checkpoint she is speaking up now because she is sick of seeing Gibson and Ports of Auckland management "spout bulls---".

"At times, the Ports of Auckland have been very good to us in the initial days. But we've had to fight for things. Neil's just, he's fed up, but he knows he's not going to get work elsewhere.

"He feels like he beats his head against a brick wall, but unfortunately for him, I just don't want to let things go. I see the injustice of it and just pisses me off.

"I'd hate for some other family, I look at those three other families who have lost their loved ones [in port accidents], and I'm very lucky, my daughter and I, we've still got him here.

"But he's mister sweetness and light to the people outside but you get home, the door gets shut, and the pain, fatigue and frustration."

Jo Bower believed a culture of silence and fear about speaking up still existed at the port.

"It's productivity, profitability comes over safety. Why else would you have a productivity bonus?"

Gibson was not fit for the chief executive role, she said.

"He just needs to own up, he needs to own it, he needs to stop making excuses. And they just need someone in there to actually run that place properly."

Checkpoint approached the Ports of Auckland for comment, but have not received a response.