22 Jun 2011

Mine safety standards called to account

10:07 pm on 22 June 2011

The Minister of Labour has been forced to defend safety standards in the country's underground coal mines.

It follows upset over remarks the Prime Minister made in Australia about the Pike River Mine, where 29 workers died in explosions last November.

John Key told The Australian newspaper the single-entry mine would be illegal in Australia, where there must be an alternative exit, and said law changes are likely.

In Question Time in Parliament on Wednesday, the Minister of Labour, Kate Wilkinson, was asked if she was satisfied that her government had done all it could to ensure workplace safety in underground coal mines before the Pike River disaster.

Ms Wilkinson said she had no reason to believe the hazards in underground coal mines were not being managed, based on the advice she had received.

"Immediately after the tragedy at Pike River, the Government commissioned an independent safety audit of all other underground mines which recommended a number of safety improvements, but reported there is no evidence that a dangerous situation is imminent," she said.

Families say suspicions confirmed

Pike River families say the Prime Minister's comments have confirmed their suspicions that the West Coast mine was fundamentally unsafe.

Carol Rose, whose son Stuart Mudge died in the disaster, says Mr Key has highlighted the lax safety regime in the local mining industry.

Ms Rose says she is hearing from miners who now work in Australia that safety standards are much higher than they are in New Zealand. One miner said he was gobsmacked by the difference and many are very angry.

Ms Rose believes the previous Labour-led government let down the Pike River miners by failing to ensure the mine was safe.

A spokesperson for the Pike River families, Bernie Monk, says Mr Key's comments vindicate the call from locals for the reinstatement of mine inspectors to improve safety.

Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly is urging the Government to overhaul mining safety laws immediately and not wait for the Royal Commission into the disaster, which is due to start later this year.