Today, the 19th of November 2020, marks the tenth anniversary of the Pike River Mine Disaster. On this day, ten years ago, 31 men went to work. Like any other workers they would have been thinking about what planned work activities lay ahead of them for the day. For the youngest man on the crew, it would have been a combination of excitement, and anticipation for what was his first day underground, having celebrated his 17th birthday the day before.
For others it was just another day in the mining industry. Their thoughts as they entered the mine may have been more focused on what awaited them after their day's work was completed - coming home to their loved ones, planning the next fishing or hunting expedition, the next game of rugby with their team mates, or catching up for a drink at the local pub with friends.
What happened at 3:44 p.m on the afternoon of that day forever changed those plans for 29 of the 31 men who entered Pike River. The history books of New Zealand will forever record the tragedy that unfolded, and the blast that was heard around the world.
The Pike River Mine Disaster was the catalyst for change in how we managed Health and Safety in the workplace in New Zealand. The Prime Minister at the time of the tragedy, John Key, launched a Royal Commission of Enquiry into the disaster. On October 30th 2012, the Chair of the Royal Commission of Enquiry presented their report to the Attorney-General in Wellington.
Since the commission's final report was released, there have been many changes to the way that Health and Safety is managed in New Zealand. The Health and Safety at Work Act (2015) came into effect on April 4th 2016. Work Safe New Zealand was established as the regulatory authority to manage the ways in which the act was to be used to educate New Zealand businesses in how to fulfil their duties as PCBUs to their employees, and others to whom they owed a duty of care, but also to enforce the act where necessary. HASANZ was launched on September 10th 2014, with the aim of raising the standard of Health and Safety Professionals across New Zealand.
So much has changed since November 11th 2010, and there is substantial evidence to show where New Zealand employers have totally changed their approach to Health and Safety in an effort to prevent a similar disaster in any industry occurring now, or in the future.
It is important that we also reflect - especially today, on the fact that, while so much has changed across the Health and Safety landscape, there is still so much that remains the same, and therein lies the challenge to all Health and Safety professionals.
I hear of businesses who even now, resist taking responsibility for the health and safety of their employees. Some have very little in place to show evidence of a commitment to health and safety. Others have no H&S Policy, training records, PPE, Standard Operating Procedures, or any way of even recording where someone has had an accident. I hear of small operators who believe that they do not have to "do all of that H&S stuff", because they only have two or three employees. There are a myriad of excuses why they do not have good H&S systems in place, but none of these excuses would be a defence if facing a prosecution following a workplace fatality.
We have the legislation, regulations, Approved Codes of Practice across a number of high risk industries. We have the regulatory authority, and an increasing archive of successful prosecutions taken against employers and individuals who have failed to meet their legal obligations to their people. We have all of this, and yet workers are still dying, and some employers do not get it - still.
There is still a lot of work that needs to be done in order to get everyone on the same page. Until this happens, there is always going to be the chance of another Pike River. As long as we have this position, we do not, and cannot, respect the memory of those 29 men who went to work on November 19th 2010, and who will never return home.
In 1971, 39 years before the Pike River Mining Disaster, the children's author Dr Seuss, published "The Lorax", a book about a creature on a mission to prevent the destruction imposed by man on the environment, and the creatures who lived there. A memorable quote from the book that has always personally resonated with me is this:
"Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not".
Think about what "UNLESS" means to you, to your business, and to your people.