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Why didn’t the warning sound at Pike River?

Written By: - Date published: 9:22 pm, January 6th, 2011 - 44 comments
Categories: business, Mining, workers' rights - Tags:

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.

44 comments on “Why didn’t the warning sound at Pike River? ”

  1. lprent 1

    That is exactly the question I have been asking since the disaster. Why didn’t the gas detectors raise the alarm? Why apparently did the first notice of the disaster happen when the two survivors staggered out of the mine.

    There was something seriously flawed with the detection in that mine.

    • lprent 1.1

      Oh and when Wishart does straight investigation rather than his wishing hard to prove his own prejudices, he does a very good job. You can tell the difference. He doesn’t editorialize on straight investigations. His stuff at the end of the 80’s was excellent.

  2. Speaking Sense To Unions 2

    “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.”

    you don’t see the obvious contradiction?

    I really don’t like your chances of trying to argue that contractors cared less for their lives than employees. To do so soley on the basis of Whishart’s accusations would be rather bad taste

    • Colonial Viper 2.1

      I really don’t like your chances of trying to argue that contractors cared less for their lives than employees. To do so soley on the basis of Whishart’s accusations would be rather bad taste

      Except thats NOT the argument.

      Its that the contractors lost money relative to the employees everytime there was a methane stop work, and that they knew it.

      The only economically rational thing to do – avoid as many methane stopwork incidents as they thought was safe.

      Pike River is in the shit.

      Why were the unions not on to the scent of these potential safety bypasses months ago? (Or were they.)

      • Speaking Sense To Unions 2.1.1

        so, now the argument is the contractors thought it was safe to work when there was high methane levels?

        • Marty G

          no, the argument is that there are three sources saying that contractors had been disabling the methane sensors because they didn’t want to lose money from the mine being closed down for what they viewed as false alarms/over-reactions because the contractor model perversely incentivised them to do so.

          • Speaking Sense To Unions

            what three sources? There’s one source – Whishart’s secret email. Neither the Timaru Herald artilce or Little refer to contractors.

            Every sensor would have had to be disabled as no alarm was raised – I doubt that the mine workers could not have been unware of that if it had occured and I doubt very much they all would have agreed.

            • Marty G

              They’re all about shutting off the system.

              Little’s mentions maximising the coal take, which matches with the first one. there’s more from little later in the article that i didn’t quote that mentions contractors specifically. don’t ave it with me to quote now.

              Forrester mentions someone getting a written warning. fair enough, usually that would only apply to employees.

          • McFlock

            It’s much easier to rationalise risk when your family has bills that need paying. If people were sabotaging sensors does that make them suicide bombers? No – it means that they persuaded themselves that the safety threshhold on the sensors was too low, and that it’ll be okay to stay in the red for a while. And then the kids can see the dentist.

            • Speaking Sense To Unions

              I’m more inclined to doubt Wishart’s 1+1=6 style of journalism than those miners’ comitment to their own safety. One reported incident when the company warned someone over an event we don’t know the full significance of.

              • McFlock

                I would agree, if Wishart were the only one to report concerns about the safety culture and systems at Pike. But he isn’t.

                Of course, the only way we’ll know for sure is if a recovery team goes in for the bodies and brings back some of the sensors to see if they were probably functional at the time, and if not why not.

                It’s not solely about recovery. Going in might help stop it happening again.

              • You should not jump to conclusions SSTU. Wait for the royal commission hearing. I get the feeling there is a lot more to come out. In particular if the power supply was cut then I cannot imagine why everyone was not ordered out immediately.

                • Speaking Sense to Unions

                  I shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that anything Wishart has to say on this issue has as much credibility as his views on a certain ex-PM’s sexuality?

                  Indeed I will wait for the commission.

                  [lprent: Wishart is known be the fool when he gets obsessed on something. I get obsessed as well troll killing, and you just did a classic slide in a unrelated topic troll tactic. I’d suggest you read the policy. ]

                  • Frack

                    If there is a more annoying thing to say in a post it is to somehow work in Helen Clark’s possible sexual preferences. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the topic and is clear evidence of a troll.

                    Try and avoid these sorts of comments and you will find the rest of what you say will be treated with a bit more respect.

            • ZeeBop

              Worse. If the incentive is to delay a shutdown until the end of the shift!

              The economy was booming for years, but pay was not going anywhere,
              and employees suk it up. Now the economy is stagnate and shrinking
              and the pay isn’t keeping up, but the bosses still want the same returns
              and have huge debt mountains to deal with, bankers are hurting! They
              need their bonus to increase this year. Something has to give, was
              Pike River the first fuse?

  3. IrishBill 3

    I’d take anything in Investigate with a pinch of salt.

    • Marty G 3.1

      yeah, so would I. Hell, I expected it to be on the lines of ‘those labour greenies killed them by not letting pike river be open cast’.

      That’s why I found the Timaru Herald article, to check the context. And I tend to trust Andrew Little’s word too.

      Even without these three accounts the issue of why the methane sensors didn’t work is at the heart of this. no way the mine should have been operating without them.

  4. RedLogix 4

    Without wanting to gainsay the train of thought here it’s worth bearing in mind the presently known sequence of events.

    The first thing we do know is that the site electrician, Russell Smith was on his way into the mine to investigate a ‘power outage’ when the explosion hit him. To my mind there must be some link between these two events.

    Secondly the other survivor, Dan Rockhouse who helped drag Smith to safety (and his story is yet to be properly told and recongnised) in that crucial 24hrs of media coverage before the lawyers and company men stepped in … among the things he stated was “we lost the methane detectors”. As a non-technical person this statement could mean that either they failed (but how would he know that?) or they went way off scale. These facts as we know them do raise a bunch of questions in my mind that we really do need the Royal Commission to ask.

    On the other hand I’ve talked this over with two professional H&S experts. Both of them state that in the final analysis this tragedy will be shown to be a case of what is known as “hidden management failure”. What this means is that while the company believed it had done all the right things, (it’s H&S Officer for instance is one of the top in the field) had all the right procedures, equipment and paperwork in place…. the men working underground had a quite different understanding.

    I agree there remains a real possibility that Wishart is onto something. Conceivably the power failure was a consequence of someone attempting to disable the methane sensors because the levels were getting too high; but that thought is tempered by the fact that this was clearly no ordinary seepage of methane… everyone I’ve talked to believes that somehow they hit a virtual gusher of the stuff.

    • Colonial Viper 4.1

      everyone I’ve talked to believes that somehow they hit a virtual gusher of the stuff.

      If they did it wouldn’t explode until it had mixed down to ~8-10% concentration by volume with ordinary air around it. That would have taken some time – I imagine anywhere from a couple of minutes to tens of minutes, depending on how much air movement was occurring in the area.

      I don’t know what the specs on those devices are but this should have been enough time for detectors to go off.

    • Marty G 4.2

      very interesting. i didn’t know about those comments from the survivors. weren’t there methane sensors on the digging machinery that are are meant to automatically shut them down if levels get too high as well as general sensors – and wouldn’t they be independently powered? Or is all that stuff electrically-powered from mains?

  5. Drakula 5

    Inprent; I have asked myself that very same question. ‘Why in the 21st century didn’t they have sensetive measuring equipment instead of the canaries in the cages?’

    I am sure many have asked themselves that question at the time.

    Ian Wishart did very goo research in the 80s with the ‘Paradise Conspiracy’, but I think that since then he has found the lord (oh dear) and the later book I read called ‘Eves Bite’ was absolute homophobic bullshit!!!

    I think that if the Pike River issue is to be investigated well ( and the bereaved families deserve the best), then Nicky Hager of ‘Hollow Men’ fame is the man.

  6. tsmithfield 6

    I can’t verify the accuracy of my following comment, so take it with a grain of salt.

    However, we have dealings with a contracting firm that had people at Pike river. The manager told us that they stopped dealing with Pike because of safety concerns. Their concern was that methane levels were allowed to rise to 4% before the mine was evacuated. Apparently other mines are closer to 2% for evacuation. Methane becomes explosive at just over 5%. If what I say is correct, then Pike River were pushing the boundaries at the very least.

  7. Speaking Sense To Unions 7

    It’s being assumed that the nature of the contractors’ employment conditions ment they would lose money during methane-caused stoppages. Does anyone know if that is the case?

    • Bright Red 7.1

      standard practice for a contractor – no work, no pay.

    • The Voice of Reason 7.2

      Good question. I don’t have the answer at Pike River, but that’s the usual arrangement with contractors. For the employer, that’s the primary difference between the two groups of workers. Waged workers get paid their agreed hours, even if there is no work available, contractors get sent home unpaid. It’s one of the reasons this government is so keen on casualising the NZ workforce. Contractors are labour on tap, entirely dependant on the whim of the boss.

      As for the methane readers, I don’t think they are electrically powered. Certainly, the personal ones aren’t. They’re wallet sized dials worn on the overalls. My guess is that the gas build up was in an area not being worked on at the start of the shift and that there were no sensors either in that area or, if they were there, they were not being monitored. Eventually the gas found an ignition source and, well, we know the rest.

      • Speaking Sense To Unions 7.2.1

        Does Wishart provide details of the contracts? It would be a fairly important part of his argument.

        • Colonial Viper

          Just assume standard terms and conditions of any standard mine contractors’ contract until more known. I suppose this means: mine shut down outside the company’s control = no pay.

          I can’t see any such contract saying: if the mine shuts down outside the company’s control = we will keep paying you anyway.

        • Lanthanide

          You know, when someone starts an investigation, it is rare for them to have 100% of all relevant details right from the outset. Especially in a particularly public and sensitive case like this where there are already official investigations being undertaken in parallel.

          captcha: forthcoming

    • higherstandard 7.3

      I believe many of the contractors were paid employees of other companies and there doesn’t really appear to have been any incentive for the behaviour as alluded to above.


  8. Speaking Sense to Unions 8

    “Just assume…”

    why do we have to assume the central premise of the argument? What are the standard contracts for mines? Does Wishart provide these details?

    • The Voice of Reason 8.1

      “why do we have to assume the central premise of the argument? ”

      Because we (and Wishart) don’t have access to the commercial contracts. But the enquiry will have that access and the facts will come out there. But it is pretty safe to assume that Pike River treated its contractors as most businesses do. No work, no pay. And therefore, an incentive to ignore or fiddle with the sensors exists.

      Having said that, I’m going to wait until the enquiry, rather than trusting a proven fantasist like Wishart. Just because it’s possible doesn’t make it a fact.

      • Colonial Viper 8.1.1

        Yep, at the end of the day its merely a possible scenario, no more no less.

        And, there will be hundreds of those contracts floating around in the hands of people who used to be in the industry, it wouldn’t be too hard to get your hands on one if you really wanted.

  9. What level of training/experience does a miner need to realise the risk of methane build up and was that adequately provided ?

    Reminds me of guys having a competition to see who can hold on to the firecracker the longest. The one who gets his hand blown off wins…

    • Bright Red 9.1

      notice the mate of Forrester’s who died was a roofer by trade and sub-contracted into the mine.

      from the linked article:

      “”I’m gutted that he was down there. He was only meant to be sub-contracting every now and again for them. He’s a roofer by trade … I still can’t believe he was down there. I just wish he’d stuck to being on a roof.” “

  10. prism 10

    How come raising conjectures and hypotheses about Pike River would be bad taste? Thinking around the problem in all its aspects is the only way to go as far as understanding the factors involved. It is heartbreaking thinking that miners might have got caught up in the same mindset that Emile Zola wrote about on the mines in Europe in the 1800s-1900s.

    captcha – angles

  11. Marjorie Dawe 11

    It seems that the methane was certainly at such high levels as to cause an explosion but the macro reasons for this would surely be bigger than the miners blocking the sensors. Why weren’t the concerns raised by Mr Forrester acted upon. What safety and inspection plans did the mine management put into place to address these concerns. Where were the government mine inspectors in this? Why did our current government not act on the review which found that the mining industry had insufficient safety standards and regulations?
    I hope that this is not a cynical attempt to place a large amount of the blame onto the miners who were tragically killed rather than the people who should have been managing the situation and ensuring that they were safe.

  12. Drakula 12

    Well I guess that it will all come out in the inquiry; that’s if the bloody inquiry is not fixed and bent to corporate sympathy.

    I heard on the radio (if I can believe the main stream media) that some want part of the inquiry held in Christchurch.

    The miners families are putting their foot down and are insisting that the full inquiry is held at Greymouth so that they can follow the events more closely.

    Good on them to they should not compromise one iota.

    Still some are insisting that most of the inquiry is held in Graymouth but the summing up be conducted in Christchurch.

    That’s not good enough nothing in my view should be conducted behind closed doors!!!!!

  13. McFlock 13

    Besides the issue of either faulty or sabotaged sensors, it could just be that a catastrophic event prior to the explosion was not detected or instrument readings were unexpected and misinterpreted (e.g. Chernobyl). Rather than just expecting a high methane reading, did whatever happen damage a sensor network? Were the sensors networked, or did their trip switches just cut the power circuits and hence the electrician thinks there’s a fault and goes into the mine? Another big thing that the various investigations will cover.

    Engineering history is full of systems where people trained for individual failures (e.g. hydraulic A loses fluid to the aircraft control surfaces are moved with hydraulic B), but an unexpected event damages dozens of separate systems that are not connected even though they run through the same general area in the structure (e.g. a missile damages hydraulics A and B, so the flight crew have to learn how to fly using differential engine power alone after figuring out what happened).

    • Colonial Viper 13.1

      I hope someone saved all the readings from the control room. When instruments fail there are often tell tale signs. Zero readings for instance, when there clearly should always be some methane in a coal mine.

      • McFlock 13.1.1

        If it’s a modern automated system then the data’s probably intact – they broadcast the cctv footage of the tunnel entrance.

        If they were still working on employee A noting readings on a clipboard (and such things aren’t always CSI-style up to date), either in a surface control room or within the mine itself, then it’s not so promising that all the data will be there, or possibly its accuracy could be easily questioned.

        And then there’s the oblique indication of a situation – one facility I worked at, with well over a thousand alarms/indicators beyond basic access control/intruder detection, sometimes all the doors in a building would unlock on a hot day (often registered just in the streaming log). It usually meant that the heat tripped a fire alarm (installed in winter), so all the doors unlocked, but the fire alarms were done by one contracting company and sometimes the security techs in the other contracting company hooked the fire alarms up to the doors but forgot to create an alarm id on the monitoring software. And when the fire service turns up before onsite security or hazmat teams know anything’s going on, the ca-ca verily doth flow.

        But then we had alarm redundancies (such as a direct alert to the fire service), so didn’t solely rely on a guy being able to walk out and raise the alarm – the first issue that stuck in my mind with Pike River.

  14. The problem with Wishart is his sources are, more often than not, anonymas. He seldom references his authorities, and has a reputation that ought to serve as a warning about the Pike article.
    I struggle to accept that any of the contractors would be so fucking stupid to deliberately tamper with the sensors. The risks are far too obvious. I dont know anything about the sensors, but would they be so vulnerable that they can be covered with gum to prevent them from triggering??

    It just sounds like more wishart bullshit to me. Hopefully, the enquiries will establish why the men were in the mine when the explosion occurred and this kind of speculation will be put to bed.

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