By the time of the Pike River Coal Mine explosion in 2010, the New Zealand mining industry had been in a protracted state of crisis, if its health and safety record was any indication. Mining in the country, of course, traces its roots all the way back to the 1850s. But for much of the intervening years, the industry’s safety record paled in comparison to that of many other coal-producing countries.
In fact, New Zealand’s workplace fatality rate fell below the OECD average. Higher than the U.K.’s, Australia’s, or Canada’s, New Zealand’s fatality rate had also remained dangerously static in the years prior to the Pike explosion. That was even despite a long history of underground coal mining tragedies, stretching all the way back to the nineteenth century:
- The 1879 Kaitangata mine. 34 lives lost
- The 1896 Brunner mine. 65 lives lost
- The 1914 Huntly, Ralph’s colliery. 43 lives lost
- The 1939 Huntly, Glen Afton no. 1 mine. 11 lives lost
- The 1967 Strongman mine, 19 lives lost
For context: New Zealand never joined the ranks of major coal exporting countries. For much of its history, the industry has been comparatively small. Australia’s coal production, just to cite one example, dwarfs that of New Zealand; New Zealand is roughly two percent of Australia’s annual production. Still, New Zealand’s health and safety record stood out, not in a good way.
So what made mining in New Zealand so potentially hazardous? For one, New Zealand mining conditions are typically more complex than most. A high level of geological exploration is required in order to define coal reserves and facilitate the proper development of a successful mine. All of these things introduce human error.
For a while, the regulatory framework didn’t help much either, especially after the phase-out of some key tenets of the Coal Mines Act of 1979. As the name implies, the Coal Mines Act had been the main law governing coal mining activities. It had been operation for a little over a decade before new regulations began to supersede it.
So what did it do? Crucially, the Act introduced an overarching Inspectorate for coal mines, one that would not only review applications for exploration and licenses but also inspect mines once they opened. In this way, the Inspectorate could guarantee a continuity of regulation throughout the lifetime of a mine. New reforms though would split the permitting, environmental, assessment, and health and safety regulations functions into distinct entities.
The Department of Labor also had a role play to in supervising coal mines, which some considered fatally flawed. The department’s policy was to customize its regulatory methodology to the specifications of its individual employers. This meant that some actually deficient mines, like Pike, were considered “best practice” and “compliant” employers. Regrettably, Labor regulators would take a lower-level approach to compliance when it came to those mines.
To learn more about the history of mining in New Zealand, read our spotlight on the Pike River Mine explosion.
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