6 Nov 2012

Pike health and safety staff under scrutiny

10:17 pm on 6 November 2012

Staff at what used to be the Department of Labour will come under further scrutiny over their role in the Pike River mining disaster and may face action by their employer.

The department - now part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment - has been heavily criticised by the Pike River Royal Commission for failing to properly monitor safety at the mine.

Twenty-nine men were killed at the West Coast mine following a series of explosions that began on 19 November 2010. Only two workers survived after managing to get out of the mine following the initial blast.

In its report released on Monday afternoon, the Royal Commission said the tragedy was preventable and there had been many warnings of a potential catastrophe that were not recognised in the months before the deadly methane explosions.

The commission blamed a culture of production before safety at the mine for causing the men's deaths and found that urgent legislative, structural and attitude changes are needed to avoid a repeat of the disaster.

The Department of Labour came in for particularly heavy criticism for failing to properly supervise operations at the mine. The commission said the department did not have the focus or capacity to ensure that the Pike River company was meeting its health and safety responsibilities and it should have stopped the mine from operating.

Kate Wilkinson resigned as the Minister of Labour on Monday after the report's release, saying it was a personal decision, but no one from the ministry is following her lead.

Chief executive David Smol says he is taking responsibility on behalf of the ministry for the fact that the regulatory system was not effective and has apologised to the families of the victims.

Mr Smol says it is not a simple matter to say that one person should be held to account for the failure of the system, but the role staff played will be investigated and action could be taken.

"If there is a need to take further steps in relation to any staff members, then that will be an employment matter which we will work through.

"Staff will be treated fairly, but I have a responsibility to fully consider all aspects of the Royal Commission's findings."

However, many of the staff involved with safety at the mine have left the organisation, he says.