Qld inspector recalls being overworked in NZ

THE Department of Labour’s role in overseeing New Zealand mine inspectors has come under scrutiny from a former inspector after a Royal Commission heard how the inspectors were “saturated” with work in the lead-up to the Pike River mine explosion.
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The Pike River mine a few weeks before the tragic explosions.

Lauren Barrett

Former NZ DoL mines inspector Kevin Poynter took the stand on the second day of phase three of the Royal Commission inquiry into the Pike River mine disaster, only four days out from the first year anniversary of the tragedy.

Poynter has more than 30 years of experience in the coal mining industry.

In 2008, he took over responsibility for inspecting Pike River from Michael Firmin – who described him as an “asset” – and left his role in June 2011.

He is now employed as a mining inspector for Queensland’s Department of Employment, Economic Development and Innovation.

When giving evidence, Poynter said inspectors were expected to make approximately 80 mine inspections a year but the lack of staff resources made the workload difficult.

“At the end of the day, we would have to make concession on who we visited and who we didn’t and because of this, you get to a point where you’re at saturation,” he said.

Poynter said the workload increased for him in July 2009, when the amount of coal mine inspectors for New Zealand went from three to two.

“I was very concerned when we were put in a position where we went down to two inspectors and not only about our ability to be able to provide a service but the extra pressure that it was going to bring on myself and my fellow inspector, with respect to the amount of time that we would've actually had to spend getting around the North Island to fill the gap,” he said.

Poynter said at no stage was the third inspector replaced.

“I was fairly passionate about it and probably somewhat disappointed that the decision had been made not to replace the inspector,” Poynter said.

When asked by lawyer James Wilding if he had raised his concerns regarding the inadequate inspection resources to the DoL, Poynter said he had but his concerns were ignored.

“I've raised this issue on every occasion since that date on my monthly

Report … [and] no change occurred,” he said.

Poynter told the inquiry that not reporting to a technical mining person made him feel “exposed” and a lack of structure within the reporting of inspections seemed “dysfunctional”

He said the inspectors would sometimes report to Christchurch, Wellington and Dunedin.

“We were hardly an inspection or a mining inspection group,” he said.

“It was really difficult to try and have a coordinated approach.”

The inquiry also heard while Poynter had been trained on how to conduct inquiries, no one ever checked to see whether or not he was conducting the inspections correctly.

“The first major review of any work that we’d done, I guess, came after November 19,” he said.

Poynter said at no time in his role with the DoL was he given a list of experts to assist him in his inspection of the underground coal mines and no one with a technical background had ever sat down with him to assess his approach to his mine inspections.

“At times it was difficult to get permission to travel, so I guess we took an assumption that being able to get technical advice was going to be something that was quite difficult,” he said.

While much of Poynter’s evidence revealed safety criticisms of the DoL, the inquiry heard during Poynter’s role as an inspector he had seemingly ignored a ventilation shaft collapse at Pike River in 2009.

Under questioning by lawyer James Wilding, Poynter agreed the incident could have posed a health and safety risk for workers underground due to the shaft collapsing but he couldn’t explain the reason as to why he didn’t investigate the matter further.

“I can’t answer that,” he said.

Poytner told the inquiry Pike River didn’t have an onsite ventilation engineer during his time as inspector and he expressed the need for a law that would require every New Zealand coal mine to have a ventilation engineer.