The Court Martial of Flight Lieutenant Dan Pezaro by the NZ Defence Force is making me uneasy. The internal Court of Inquiry into this accident hinted at major disfunction within the upper reaches of the Forces in terms of health and safety. On my reading of that report, the RNZAF itself could be liable in a civil health and safety system as employer, for failing to take all practicable steps to keep its workers safe, but here we have it laying charges against its own staff member, and in a process where the force itself is prosecutor and judge.
I have written before about the lack of clarity within the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE – old DOL) regarding its role in investigating logging truck accidents – it doesn’t investigate them (leaving it to the Police) and in doing so fails to meet its statutory duties. Because the police do it, in most truck accidents the HSE law is not even considered regardless that they are clearly workplace deaths. The same applies to Defence.
In an SSC report commissioned at the end of last year which looked at which agency actually has responsibility for investigating military accidents, it was decided that MBIE is the agency responsible regardless that in the helicopter case MBIE was under the impression that Civil Aviation had the authority (something in the name Civil should have been a clue). It appears no real health and safety work has been done by the regulator with this huge employer. This is a great big gap!
Despite barely paying any attention to the forces, and the forces having a health and safety record that ain’t pretty, MBIE happily told the SSC that they are of the view that NZDF is on the whole a responsible employer! It is clear from the Court of Inquiry report that there were serious management problems in this squadron and higher up including encouragement to take risks to get a job done, and if you thought lack of power in the employment relationship was a factor in Pike River – try saying ‘no’ in the military.
The report goes on to recommend MBIE gets its act together and employs some specialist inspectors who can do this work – this hasn’t happened. The recent drowning by a soldier wearing a life jacket that didn’t inflate because the bloody gas bottle was empty raises questions regarding the most basic safety processes in some areas of Defence.
Because I can’t resist it despite you all telling me my blogs are too long – as a little aside – during the Pike investigation we objected when MBIE allowed Pike River lawyers to sit in while other miners from Pike were interviewed by its inspectors and the Police. We thought allowing the company which could be liable for the accident, to sit in when its workers were giving evidence potentially against it, was a conflict of interest. MBIE allowed it regardless. I was not surprised then to see this in the SSC report on how investigations could be done when the Defence Force or Police also want to investigate a defence accident:
“NZ Police, MBIE and NZDF have advised that, in practice, joint interviews can be conducted or witness statements may be made available to other investigating bodies as far as practicable, which minimises the impact on survivors having to relive their experience and reduces the risk of evidence being altered in the retelling.”
Back to the point… sort of…
On a broader note I think it is time for more representation for those who work for the defence forces in this country. I have been concerned over the last couple of years about how the Government and Senior Officers have been taking advantage of the fact these men are sworn to loyalty and are unable to join together to have a collective voice about their employment issues. Recent attacks on them include the unilateral reduction in conditions as we saw last year when rents were significantly increased and other benefits cut, the fact that there have been virtually no pay increases to personnel for 5 years (a small increase was made last year), the moving of uniformed staff into civilian jobs undermining pay and career choices, and this along with the way the Defence Force seems to be unaccountable for its workplace accidents.
On the various picket lines last year I was surprised that the number of families who had sons in the military. It was fascinating to hear their stories – of poor quality shoes that hurt feet, of having to sew pockets into uniforms to carry necessary gear, but mostly concern over conditions of work and wage rates. Some of the stories they told were chilling.
Workers are considered “members” of the defence forces rather than employees. This means they are not covered by employment law and do not have either employment rights or a union. The legislation provides only two ways out – to leave of your own free will or to be discharged for bad behaviour (I have questioned the legality of the redundancies made last year). There is an understanding – you have a membership – in exchange for loyalty and giving up your employment rights, you will be looked after – not exploited – your pay will be fair, you will have a career etc etc. There is an assume extra level of care in the concession of rights these workers make.
But the safety stuff is the biggest worry to me. If Defence were a normal employer, the MBIE would have come in (hopefully!) and if it as an organisation was found to have failed, it would have been prosecuted. In the helicopter case – Defence investigated itself and is now charging Flight Lieutenant Dan Pezaro. The Court of Inquiry report makes disturbing reading and read along Pike River, has some similarities.
From the SSC report:
“The report found that the organisation rewarded risk-taking behaviour, for example the organisation gave a particular individual a “hero-villain” reputation; “The hero-villain would be lauded for what he/she had achieved, but was known to be pushing the limits of safe operations and therefore in conflict with the safety and rules expectations of the RNZAF”
From the Inquiry report
It is likely that operating in marginal weather conditions has become ‘normalised’ behaviour for 3 Squadron and that the formation either did not recognise the risk posed by the poor weather, or had been exposed to it so often that their perception of the risk had reduced.”
“Makeshift securing strops and clips have been riveted or bolted onto the toolkit and picketing boxes throughout 3 Squadron role equipment stores and are used to secure them to the floor of the aircraft during flight. All three of these strop sets failed in the accident, freeing the items to move during the impact sequence. These items are heavy and present a significant hazard to the occupants of the aircraft once loose. The torn strops showed evidence of rotting and contamination. These strops are not subject to typical RNZAF servicing regimes, as there are no inspection requirements or design standards for the fitting of the strops to the boxes.”
“The Human Factors Report identified that a ‘can do’ culture existed on 3 Squadron at the time of the accident. The ‘can do’ culture had positive aspects that included increased motivation and increased effort towards achieving tasks from scarce resources. These positive aspects are actively encouraged by the RNZAF. The positive aspect was described by one expert as ‘3 Squadron gets the job done, that’s just the way they are.’ Aircrew also stated that if you wanted to get another task, you’d get this one done. This reinforcement is apparent in the Unit Citations, SAR Awards and other commendations received by the Squadron.”
“The organisational response was described by an expert as giving a particular individual a ‘hero-villain’ reputation. The hero-villain would be lauded for what he/she had achieved, but was known to be pushing the limits of safe operations and therefore in conflict with the safety and rules expectations of the RNZAF. “
It is unclear from these reports if the NZDF took “all practicable steps” to keep these young men safe. The chance the NZDF will prosecute itself it remote. It needs someone charged for this terrible accident and while this soldier may have some real responsibility to answer, I would feel better if the force itself were also at least investigated as other employers are. We know from Pike River that self regulation does not work to keep workers safe. I suspect the Military is a big fat example of that.