8 Feb 2017

Quarry supervisors failing industry exam

9:36 am on 8 February 2017

More than half of quarry managers sitting a crucial exam are failing, and have missed a deadline to prove they are fit to run a quarry safely.

However, the 60 percent of managers who have failed are all still working and Worksafe has not closed down any quarries since the 31 December deadline passed.

diggers at a quarry

Worksafe and representatives of the mining industry are meeting this week to discuss the exam failure rate. Photo: 123RF

The Pike River mine disaster inquiry resulted in harder-to-get certificates of competence (COC). All of the managers at the country's 1600 or so quarries were supposed to have renew their A or B Grade certificates, which have been toughened up according to 2016 health and safety laws.

Under the changes, B graders can now run bigger quarries than before, as long as they do not use explosives, thus the B certificate is now more difficult to get.

Test results show 60 percent are failing the B grade oral exam.

"The candidates are spooked by the oral examination itself," said the Aggregate and Quarry Association's chief executive Roger Parton.

"I think in a lot of cases ... they have the knowledge, it's a question of being able to express it. I understand that a lot of people who go back for a second attempt are fine."

Some within the industry are questioning why the failure rate is so high given all the managers have had two years to prepare - the original deadline to upgrade the COCs was 31 December, 2015.

"We're in a real dilemma now because they have had that 12 months and it was up on the first of January," said the E tū union's director of industries Ged O'Connell.

"It wouldn't be good enough to have a quarry continue to be managed by a person who has failed badly ... I imagine if they have failed they shouldn't be running a quarry."

Worksafe had already told quarries they would not be closed down immediately if a manager missed the mark.

Its chief inspector of the High Hazards Unit Mark Pizey said he was cutting the industry some slack where it showed it was trying to get it right but "only where there is evidence of the fact that they are in training and they are awaiting an oral examination and where the risk is such we are prepared to accept that that level of competence is adequate," he said.

He rejected the suggestion it was sending a message that Worksafe was soft on compliance.

"So if they are operating [now], they will be operating under the conditions of what we term an improvement notice, which requires them to undertake something by a certain date... If you are not in the process you will not be allowed to operate that quarry and you will need to appoint somebody who does have the certificate of competence."

The improvement notice gave managers up to three months to sit, or re-sit, the B grade exam.

Mr Pizey did not know how many improvement notices to pass a COC had been issued as the number of notices changed as inspectors went around the quarries checking.

He had seven inspectors all up, three of whom are fulltime on quarries, and was hoping to employ a fourth on quarries; there are an estimated 1600 quarries, possibly a thousand of which are backblock operations where safety risks are highest.

The quarry association's Roger Parton said the quarries themselves were as safe as they ever were.

"Over the years nothing has changed other than the requirement for the changes in the COCs. People are still doing the same job ... and by and large they are going home safe at the end of each working day."

However, he had expected some smaller operations would be forced to shut as Worksafe targeted backblock quarries.

But Worksafe has not issued any prohibition notices this year, and Mr Pizey said he doubted that tracking prohibition notices last year would show the number had risen as the COC deadline neared.

E tū's Ged O'Connell said the exam failure rate was just the latest illustration of an industry that had resisted regulation and policing for years.

"We attended meetings last year, or 2015, or quarrymen right throughout the country and we were really surprised about the antagonism towards regulation, the antagonism towards health and safety, and it just didn't make sense given the fact that 2015 I think they had five deaths and they were pretty horrific and [had] some really bad practices.

"You just wonder what's happening in that industry as to why they are so determined to avoid regulation yet they have such a poor record."

Mr Pizey, however, said the industry was trying hard to be proactive on safety.

The industry and Worksafe are due to meet next Wednesday to discuss the exam failure rate.

The industry will be putting its case to change how the competence certification is run; any change would be folded into a review this year of all the regulations around quarrying.

The industry successfully lobbied to be left out of most of toughening up of mining laws after the Pike River disaster, and a significant section within it wants separate, tailormade quarrying regulations. This was opposed by the E tū union.

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