I never, ever thought I would say this but there’s a very good article in Investigate this week. It’s about the Pike River disaster. With methane sensors in place, alarms should have gone off well before the gas reached combustible level. Investigate reveals the sensors may have been disabled by workers who would lose pay if they had to stop work.
Investigate received an anonymous email from a man whose wife is connected to Pike River who claimed that there had been problems with miners whom Pike River brought on as contractors, rather than as employees. “As a contractor; they don’t get paid when the mine shuts down due to high methane levels and as a consequence, some of the contractors would cover the sensors with chewing gum to stop them triggering”
That’s a pretty blood-chilling notion. But it could explain why methane got to a combustible level with the men still inside and no alarm sounding.
One anonymous email doesn’t make a story but it’s backed up by two more similar accounts.
There’s ex-Pike River miner, Brent Forrester, reported in the Timaru Herald on November 26th:
“The 36-year-old, who was forced to leave the mine due to a hip-injury and now lives in Brisbane, said the mine “always had ventilation issues” and had to be “gassed out” due to high methane levels many times. He said his gas detection unit would go “off the charts”, suggesting the methane level was at an explosive level.
Mr Forrester said management struggled to maintain the methane levels, and safety concerns he and his crew raised were often ignored.
During his time at the mine Mr Forrester, who is not involved in mining any more, would be in charge of six men, while they worked in the mine, and he believed the explosion was something waiting to happen. “My first reaction was `I knew this was going to happen’, I just had a feeling.”
Mr Forrester, who worked with many of the men trapped below ground, said it was unlikely any of them would have survived the initial blast.
“I’m actually surprised the two guys that got out, got out. If you look at some of the information, it would have hit over 1200 degrees Celsius straight away from the explosion … There’s a risk of further explosions, so obviously it’s very hot. That coal has a low sulphur, high carbon content so it burns very hot. It’s a very unique sort of coal, it always fetches more on the market. If it ever caught on fire, you’d be struggling to get out of there.”
Mr Forrester said he and co-workers went to management many times, and safety concerns were discussed regularly between the workers.
“[The] reason I didn’t push it too far was the fear of losing my job. The pressure is always on, they’re losing a lot of money, so they’re making you cut a lot of short-cuts.”
Mr Forrester recalled an incident where a miner received a written warning after putting an air hose up to a methane sensor to bring its reading down.
He said many of the methane sensors, did not work or were not calibrated and the mine’s phone system needed to be upgraded.
When he raised these concerns with management, he said they did not take it seriously.
“I don’t believe management spent enough time in the mine.”
Andew Little adds further information on this issue of contractors’ desire to get paid clashing with the need for safety, resulting in methane sensors being disabled. Speaking to Investigate, Little says:
“I can tell you what I’ve heard in the day immediately following is that there’s apparently a bypass mode on the methane sensors used on the operating gear and heavy equipment of the miners [the equipment should have automatically shut down in the presence of dangerous methane levels] the emphasis was on maximising the coal take and some people were putting the senors on the equipment into a bypass mode”
So when we’re hearing three different stories about the sensors then I certainly think there’s something in it and that now has got to be one of the major focuses of the Commission of Inquiry, and the backdrop has to be, what kind of incentives were there that would have encouraged this kind of thing to happen?”
When I’ve asked people why mining is one of the most heavily unionised industries in the country, they say its born of the culture of working together in a dangerous situation – ‘you need to be able to trust and stand beside everyone down there, your life is on the line’. There’s an instinct for the miners to band together and to demand very high safety standards from their bosses.
Does bringing on workers as contractors, rather than employees, undermine this dedication to putting safety first? A contractor doesn’t get paid if the coal isn’t mined, like an employee does. That’s the whole point of having contractors in the mine, to make the workforce more ‘flexible’ and cheaper. So aren’t contractors, then, more incentivised to ignore safety issues so the mine keeps on operating? Did that lead to a cowboy attitude?
Why those methane sensors didn’t go off will have to be the focus of the inquiries into the disaster. We can’t jump to conclusions but the notion that the company management created conditions that appears to have actively incentivised workers to disable the safety system that should have saved 29 lives is very troubling.
btw: No, I don’t read Investigate regularly. The article was sent to me by a mate who claims he happened to be flicking trough it at a cafe at lunch.