9 Dec 2011

Pike safety manager refuses to lay blame for disaster

9:13 pm on 9 December 2011

Pike River Coal's safety manager has defended his work record and refused to blame anyone for the disaster which killed 29 workers at the West Coast mine.

The Royal Commission in Greymouth was hearing evidence on fatal explosions which began at the mine on 19 November last year. Eight weeks of hearings have been concluded and the inqiury will resume in Febuary.

On Friday, Neville Rockhouse continued giving evidence under at-times intense cross-examination.

The previous day, he revealed it was only after the disaster that he found out workers were covering gas sensors with plastic bags and using explosives underground in a casual way.

Stacey Shortall, the lawyer for Pike River Coal chief executive Peter Whittall, put it to Mr Rockhouse on Friday this meant the 29 men who died must be at least partly responsible for the disaster.

However, Mr Rockhouse, who lost a son Benjamin in the tragedy, said he was not willing to blame them and it was the work system that let the men down.

"I'm not into the blame culture - never have been. I'm into the where did the system let these guys down. Twenty-nine good men are dead, my son included. The system of work has failed here - I'm not going to blame individuals, sorry."

When pressed, Mr Rockhouse agreed that his son Daniel, who also worked in the mine and is one of two people to survive the blasts, must have known such things were going on underground.

But Mr Rockhouse said he had not identified if anything like that was happening on the day of the first major explosion on 19 Novmber last year.

Evidence challenged

Neville Rockhouse told the hearing in Greymouth on Thursday he was overworked by the company and was intimidated by Mr Whittall who was mine manager but later became the chief executive.

Mr Rockhouse talked about how he ended up working 60 to 80-hour weeks, but still could not get underground to do safety checking.

Mr Whittall's lawyer challenged that evidence on Friday, pointing out to Mr Rockhouse that, at the same time, he had been taking on extra work as an auditor for the Accident Compensation Corporation.

Stacey Shortall told the hearing Mr Rockhouse had also been an international representative to the Institute of Safety Managers and had personally chosen to increase his workload with his extra duties.

Ms Shortall suggested that he should take partial responsibility for his extra workload. Mr Rockhouse agreed that he had to some extent, but said he had given everything he had to the company.

"I believe I executed my duties as the safety and training manager to the best of my abilities for the whole period I worked for Pike River Coal within the constraints that I was allowed to operate within."

Ms Shortall also challenged evidence given by Mr Rockhouse that he started from scratch on the safety systems at Pike River Coal, and he agreed that he had been given a manual he could have built on.

However, Mr Rockhouse said he only received part of the manual, and did not get it electronically, and decided it was better to start again.

Safety system faults detailed

The commission was told on Friday of three major faults with the mine's safety system.

A lawyer for the families of the men killed, Richard Raymond, put it to Neville Rockhouse that there were some large gaps in the systems he had devised.

Mr Raymond said safety incident reports by deputy managers underground were not passed on, Mr Rockhouse was unable to get underground to see for himself, and he had no power to investigate directly.

Mr Rockhouse said given the evidence he had heard, he accepted those were major faults.

Mr Raymond also suggested to Mr Rockhouse that his evidence on Thursday suggested he had been the victim of workplace bullying.

Mr Rockhouse replied it did not seem so at the time, but with hindsight he now accepts it was.