New Zealand’s new attitude to mine safety post the Pike River Tragedy

The OHS Leaders Summit was held last week in the Surfers Paradise Marriott Resort & Spa, Gold Coast. OHS leaders were invited on site to share their key leadership insights, experiences, thoughts and challenges on the OHS industry.

One topic that was discussed was the Pike River Tragedy in New Zealand. Hans Buwalda, the Group Manager, Environment, Health & Safety, of Fletcher Building (a New Zealand based company that manufactures and distributes building materials, constructs residential houses, commercial and civil infrastructure) shared his extensive knowledge and acumen on the terrifying tragedy. He discussed why it happened, how New Zealand organisations’ OHS operations are changing, and where they will be further into the future to ensure such a tragedy does not occur again.

The Pike River Tragedy was a coal mining accident that began on the 19th November 2010 in the Pike River Mine on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. A methane explosion occurred at the mine while 31 miners and contractors were present in the mine. Two miners managed to walk from the mine but the remaining 16 miners and 13 contractors were believed to be 2,200 metres from the mine’s entrance. A second explosion occurred on the 24th November which made the police believe all 29 remaining men were dead. Following this, a third explosion then occurred on 26th November 2010 and a fourth on the 28th November 2010.

The Pike River Mine incident ranks as New Zealand’s worst mining disaster since 43 men lost their lives at Ralph’s Mine in Huntly in 1914. Hans Buwalda of Fletcher Building discussed the conclusions of the Royal Commission into how the disaster occurred and what impact the tragedy has had on New Zealand’s OHS operations.

Hans summarised conclusions that the Royal Commission had reached at the OHS Leaders Summit, including that safety was not a priority for either the Board or the senior managers of Pike River.

“There was no emphasis on safety from the beginning. Safety was not included in mine planning and therefore the mine design was inherently unsafe. Then when operations began, there was so much pressure on production to meet challenging targets, that safety was not given adequate weight. Moreover, the regulatory system in New Zealand was not adequately equipped to ensure that the mine was safe.” Hans Buwalda, Group Manager, Environment, Health & Safety, of Fletcher Building.

Since the Pike River Tragedy in November 2010 legislation in New Zealand is being upgraded and many safety improvements have been implemented. While some changes are still a working progress and will take time, New Zealand is on a better safer journey now in relation to their workers safety, than they were before.

New legislation based on the Australian Model Act has been introduced which creates real responsibilities for officers. More direction has been initiated through more specific regulations and approved codes of practices and more resources are being made available to a new safety regulator. These responses, together with the Report of the Royal Commission, have raised the profile of safety in the workplace in New Zealand. Hans hopes that this will gradually improve New Zealand’s safety culture.

He told OHS leaders that New Zealand organisations’ understanding of safety management will improve now that new legislation is being implemented. Improvements will be reflected in the legislation which will take heed to the real fact that hazards and risks cannot be completely eliminated. OHS leaders in New Zealand need to focus on managing these so that, as far as reasonably practicable, we are preventing people from being seriously or fatally injured.

Another change that Hans discussed is an improved understanding and appreciation on the impact of harm to workers’ health. Organisations within New Zealand are increasingly recognising the harm that occurs to people’s health during their working life and recognise the opportunity for workplaces to mitigate this. Workplace health programmes will now be recognised as investments in employee productivity and engagement.

Hans went further on his attitude and understanding on Zero Harm;

“Most injuries are caused by slips, trip, falls, etcetera. These are not a good indicator of the risk of more serious incidents in which people could be potentially seriously injured or killed. Safety management needs to focus on developing more effective controls for significant hazards. This requires qualified and experienced staff.”

“Fletcher Building for instance has shifted our focus from reducing injury rates to improving our controls on our significant hazards. We have also improved reporting to the Board and are engaging with the Board on safety risk management.”

Hans went further to explain why he believes we need change our focus from zero harm to managing more potentially significant hazards;

“Zero harm can lead to organisations not placing enough focus on managing significant hazards. If they focus on trying to stop all injuries, then they are not likely to take a risk-based approach. One consequence is a Pike River type outcome; that is, no minor injuries, then suddenly, a very significant incident that leads to serious or fatal injuries.”

Having these new procedures, new legislation, new Board presence in place in New Zealand puts safety as more of a priority and will teach the safety managers on site that safety is more important than hitting injury rate targets. This, along with the Report of the Royal Commission, has raised the profile of safety in the workplace in New Zealand and in time will vastly improve a safety culture in all workplaces.

Hans was very appreciative to attend the OHS Leaders Summit where he was able to share his experience in New Zealand and he hopes that his presentation at the event  will further his peers understanding on how safety can be improved.

“The OHS Leaders Summit has been great. The whole idea of an OHS Summit for OHS leaders is something that we need. It exposes health and safety professionals to best practice, both through presentations by their peers, and by meetings with product and service providers. It also gives safety professionals like me, a great opportunity to network throughout the event, and furthermore, we can now follow up with new safety peers afterwards.”


The OHS Leaders Summit is an annual 3 day closed door event which brings together 150 of Australia’s leading OH&S professionals to discuss critical new legislation and changes that affect the day to day operations of their business. The event is held in a very relaxed and captive environment allowing all involved to interact in targeted and personalised workshops, keynotes, panels, think-tanks, roundtables and 1-1 meetings. The OHS Leaders Summit 2014 was held on the 25-27 March 2014 in the Sheraton Mirage Resort & Spa, Gold Coast. This event also gives senior safety leaders an opportunity to learn about the latest technology and service offerings along with understanding and exchanging ideas with their peers through targeted workshops and sessions. For more information visit:

If you are interested in participating in 2015’s event as a delegate, speaker or a supplier, please register your interest here and one of our colleagues will be in touch shortly.

If you want to speak with someone directly about attending please contact Orla Hanby.