Bullying claims continue as inquiry winds up

PIKE River’s former safety and training manager Neville Rockhouse has denied his criticisms of the mine’s ex-boss Peter Whittall were an attempt to seek revenge for the former CEO’s actions.
Bullying claims continue as inquiry winds up Bullying claims continue as inquiry winds up Bullying claims continue as inquiry winds up Bullying claims continue as inquiry winds up Bullying claims continue as inquiry winds up

Underground at the Pike River mine months before tragedy struck in November, 2010. Image courtesy of PRC.

Lauren Barrett

Rockhouse was giving evidence last Friday at phase three of the Royal Commission inquiry into the mine disaster which killed 29 men, including his son Ben.

Taking the stand for a second day in a row, Rockhouse continued speaking about his encounters with Whittall during his time at the mine which started in 2006.

Under cross-examination by lawyer Richard Raymond for the families of the deceased, Rockhouse told how during a presentation he was giving to the management team, Whittall proceeded to slap the wall and mimicked him throughout his talk.

Whittall then ripped Rockhouse’s presentation to pieces.

Speaking about the incident, Rockhouse said: “I was just rather shocked, I'd never actually seen anyone do that before in my career.”

The following day, Rockhouse handed in his resignation and went to speak to general manager Doug White about the incident who told him to take “concrete pills and toughen up.”

Reflecting on White’s comments, Rockhouse agreed that the workplace environment at Pike River was very much a “boys’ culture.”

Raymond then proceeded to suggest Rockhouse was a victim of workplace bullying.

“Yeah, I’d have to concede that, with everything I know now,” Rockhouse said.

Later in the day, Pike River Coal lawyer Stacey Shortall questioned Rockhouse about his harsh criticisms of Whittall.

“Would you accept Mr Rockhouse, that your evidence in this phase criticising Mr Whittall is an opportunity for you to publicly humiliate and embarrass him back?” Shortall asked.

Whittall denied Shortall’s suggestions.

During evidence, Rockhouse said he was left with minimal training resources while his requests for more staff and a safety chamber for the mine were denied by management.

Rockhouse also said he was never given access to statutory mine official reports, so he was unaware of the issues at the coal face.

Despite this, Rockhouse said he performed his role at Pike River as best as he could.

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

The day before, Rockhouse had told the inquiry how he was “gobsmacked” about the mine's safety flaws, which he only found out about after the explosion.

The safety breaches included workers putting plastic bags over gas sensors and using explosives to apply stone dust on the mines walls.

Under questioning from Shortall, Rockhouse refused to speculate on whether or not the 29 deceased miners had played a part in these actions.

“Have you heard that any of the men underground on November 19, 2010, had been involved at all in the bypassing of safety devices or overriding of safety features?” Shortall asked.

“No I’m not into the blame culture,” Rockhouse said.

“You know 29 good men are dead, my son included … the system of work has failed here.

“They’ve paid the ultimate price,” he said.

Earlier Rockhouse agreed with Raymond that there were three failings in Pike River’s safety system.

They consisted of not having access to statutory mine official reports which contained a number of safety issues, his inability to go underground and see firsthand what was going on and the departmental heads exercising discretion as to whether or not matters were investigated at their level or involving Rockhouse.

Rockhouse conceded that at the time of the explosion, he was left scratching his head because there had been no indicators of any problems at the mine.

He said he still relived the scene at the mine every day and stressed the need for the remains of the men who died to be recovered.

“Those boys deserve to come home, they deserve a decent burial,” he said.

The last section of phase three is set to resume on February 7, 2012.

It will focus on determining the exact cause of the explosion.