8 Dec 2011

Safety manager 'intimidated' by Pike River boss

10:49 pm on 8 December 2011

The man who oversaw safety systems at Pike River Coal mine says he was too intimidated by the chief executive to raise safety problems.

Neville Rockhouse was giving evidence at an inquiry into the disaster at the West Coast mine where 29 men died following a series of explosions that began on 19 November last year.

The third phase of the inquiry in Greymouth is focusing on safety systems at the mine before the blasts. A number of workers have revealed there were widespread safety problems at the Pike River Coal.

Mr Rockhouse told the Royal Commission on Thursday his relationship with chief executive Peter Whittall fell apart over several years because safety projects were not being made a priority by other departments.

He said he was unable to change this because Mr Whittall could be a very intimidating person.

Mr Rockhouse said on one occasion, Mr Whittall humiliated him during a safety briefing and on another rebuked him for helping a manager write an operating procedure.

"Look, some days it was fine and some weeks it was fine - good as gold. And then other times not so good and he'd give me a hard time, but he'd also give a lot of the other managers a hard time," Mr Rockhouse said.

"He could be a very intimidating man and a lot of people on site were intimidated by him."

Mr Rockhouse said he did not feel able to raise safety issues with the company's chairman, John Dow, when Mr Whittall was present.

Manager admits he didn't know all that went on

Neville Rockhouse admitted on Thursday that he did not know the truth about what was happening in the mine until after the disaster.

Witnesses, including the former chairman of Pike River Coal's board, have repeatedly criticised what they said was the failure of the safety manager to raise concerns.

But Mr Rockhouse told the inquiry he thought the mine was doing everything right and did not know all that was going on.

He said it was only after the fatal blasts that his son Daniel, who worked underground, told him what staff were doing.

Mr Rockhouse said he was gobsmacked to hear workers put bags over methane gas sensors and were casually using explosives to apply bags of stonedust to the mine's wall.

He said he now realises he did not go underground enough to monitor safety and would have camped in there if he had known what was going on.

Daniel Rockhouse is one of two men to have survived the blasts. His brother, Benjamin, died in the mine.