Pike River mining disaster reveals a killer culture

A health and safety culture could be toxic, or even a killer, writes safety psychologist David Broadbent. Managers should keep a close eye on small deviations.

The outcome of the investigation into the New Zealand Pike River mining disaster revealed how a company with a killer culture could escape justice.

The Royal Commission released its analysis of this mining disaster, in which 29 workers died, just more than a year ago, and since then the wheels of justice and moral obligation have ground slowly and poorly.

The influence of safety culture as a precursor to major incidents was confirmed. Eventually, in late 2013, the Crown advised the Christchurch District Court it would not proceed with the prosecution of Pike River Coal boss Peter Whittall on twelve health and safety charges.

The Royal Commission Report very clearly outlines a series of events of which it was well argued that Peter Whittall had been a key architect. When would people be held accountable for a culture of calamity, or killer culture that they design or contribute to?

It is not my call to say whether or not Peter Whittall was criminally negligent, though I certainly have an opinion. The Crown’s position was that they were unconvinced that they would get a conviction. Justice was not done, and not seen to be done. The families of the dead miners are grieving all over again.

Geoffrey Podger, acting deputy chief executive of New Zealand’s Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s health and safety group said “a number of witnesses were not prepared to front up to court and some experts clashed in their evidence”.

What a load of rubbish, Geoffrey Podger, is this the entirety of your excuse. Have you not heard of a subpoena? I have been asked to give evidence over the years, and I always do so under the protection of a subpoena. It is not a voluntary process. If they do not want to “front up”, get a subpoena.

I am also yet to see a case where “experts” do not clash with respect to their evidence. That is exactly what happens in a criminal proceeding almost all the time. That is the purpose of the judicial system. To weigh up the evidence and the credibility/appropriateness of the experts and to come to a conclusion.

Geoffrey Podger and others who are party to this ‘decision’ have placed yourselves above the law.

Employer buys off bereaved relatives

Peter Whittall and his board are making a “voluntary” donation to the families of the dead miners, saying “what we would have spent we shall now give to the families of the deceased”.

Judge Jane Farish, who accepted the prosecution motion to withdraw charges, said compensation payment by the mine’s former directors was an acknowledgement that the company was at fault. What a load of, oops I can’t say that.

Another case of the judiciary being far out of step with public expectations. Judge Farish at least displayed some understanding of the criticisms that would be levelled at her and others, when she said “some people may believe this is Mr Whittall buying his way out of a prosecution, but I can tell you it’s not.” Well Judge, it seems no-one believes you.

Court orders small compensation

In July 2013 Pike River Coal was ordered to pay each of the families NZ$ 110 000, a pathetic amount of compensation. As often happens in these circumstances, Pike River Coal went into voluntary bankruptcy (receivership), and the families were given NZ$ 5000.

Then Pike River Coal finds millions of dollars to fund a legal defence. What a co-incidence that Pike River Coal is now stumping up NZ$ 110 000.

New Zealand Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly said the decision not to proceed with the case against the mine and state officials supposed to regulate mine safety, would never be scrutinised in court.

Most of the families first heard of the legal decision in the media, and that is unforgivable. All of this was announced on December 12, with public focus on Christmas. I hope that strategy does not work and does not encourage killer culture.

I remain very disillusioned at the degree of hyperbole and hot air relating to safety at work. Many employers say “the safety program is the most important thing we have here” but they fail to invest any real commitment to those programs.

A half-hearted safety culture is a killer culture

Some workers are injured and killed as a direct consequence of these acts of omission. There was a killer culture at Pike River Coal. The Royal Commission identified an innumerable number of warning signs that were totally ignored.

This level of omission is off the scale of risk tolerance. Risk markers are put away for another day, and some people die before that day of action comes.

Asian safety culture is toxic

At South Asia’s first Global HSE Conference, hosted by Cairn Energy and led by P Elango, Hari Kumar and others, there were signs off investing real and genuine commitment. I ran out of business cards as senior safety people from throughout India came up to me and ask if I could return and present or assist their business, but none of them followed up.

The underlying safety culture throughout India is toxic. This was stated categorically by senior Asian safety experts at the forum.

At a major Indian refinery’s behavioural focused safety system, based on Transformational Safety, the goal was to develop a world’s best practice safety culture, an ambitious and inspirational goal.

While we were finalising a service agreement, we got a new site manager who sabotaged the whole thing, asking us to modify a two year safety culture change program into a six month reviewable window.

Not a surprise as this is the way things are done in India. An exceptional Sri Lankan safety official stated at the Cairn conference; “as long as we continue to try and cut costs at every point, and insist on even cutting down the lowest tender, what we are really cutting is lives”. Never a truer word spoken. Sadly it has not been heard.

Safety culture crunch in the USA

These frustrations are not limited to emerging economies. I recently returned from a visit to the United States to support a major multinational company to design and develop content for their global HSE conference in 2014. I designed an agenda which involved interacting with the top four executives, and introducing the global HSE team to the planned content.

Enormous notice was given and the visit deliberately scheduled to coincide with senior leadership availability. I had advised the site contacts that this was a key element of any visit as the subject I was planning to integrate in their business was Transformational Safety Leadership.

For TSL to provide optimal outcomes for a business it demands the “buy-in” of senior leadership – in deed as much as word. Imagine my surprise when the top guy did not show up, and the guy with the line responsibility for the conference also did not show.

Return on safety investment

An employer cannot say “safety is our priority in business” and then demonstrate something different. Actions speak louder than words.

My frustrations at killer culture and these toxic behaviours has me thinking, why bother. Am I pushing the proverbial stone uphill?

There are now almost 17 000 subscribers to A Second on Safety, so safety issues are broadly appreciated and supported.

It is supplied at no cost, and that may have something to do with the support. To state the obvious, return on investment depends on what you put in.

* David Broadbent is the founder of Transformational Safety. This blog is an extract from a recent blog on TransformationalSafety.com.

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