Plastic bags put over gas sensors in Pike River mine

Pike River Mine health and safety manager Neville Rockhouse resigned twice - and turned grey in the face after one management meeting - the Royal Commission of Inquiry heard today.

One of Mr Rockhouse's two coalmining sons, Ben, was among the 29 men who died when the mine exploded on November 19 last year, while the other, Daniel, was one of only two to survive the blast.

The commission heard today that former health and safety training co-ordinator Adrian Couchman had no mining experience before he joined Pike River Coal Ltd, having previously worked for the West Coast Regional Council.

Safety and training was under-resourced at the mine, he said.

He learned only recently that plastic bags had been put over methane sensors inside the mine.

Mr Couchman said his boss, Neville Rockhouse, worked long hours and found management meetings extremely stressful affairs.

Mr Rockhouse resigned twice and physically handed in his notice, but family and staff members talked him out of it.

"He had actually changed colour [after one] - he had gone grey. He was obviously under a lot of duress,'' Mr Couchman said.

One month before the disaster, Mr Couchman's job became a pure training role and he stopped his safety audits.

He did not know who made the decision to transfer him.

Mr Rockhouse had wanted more health and safety resources; the change "had the opposite effect''.

He relayed his concerns to mine manager Doug White but was told he could focus clearly on training, and Mr Rockhouse on safety.

Mr White's lawyer John Haigh QC said soon that after the shift, Mr Rockhouse got an assistant.

Mr Couchman also claimed that some mine managers paid "lip service'' to reporting hazards and at one stage had a backlog of 200 incidents to investigate.

After finding during an audit that compressed air was being blown on a methane sensor he pulled the structure down. He was unsure what happened to the culprit.

Until recently, he was unaware of the number of times the sensors had been interfered with - including being covered with plastic bags.

One witness has told the commission that in 2009, 18 or 20 of the miners searched had been found with contraband, from cigarettes to cellphones.

Mr Couchman said that in the early days "there was quite a bit of contraband found''.

He and Mr Rockhouse were always "nagging'' managers about outstanding incident reports, which could number 40, some of them over a year old.

Former mine manager Peter Whittall would pressure managers to clear the backlog.

"A lot were cleared without proper investigation. Then we would start all over again,'' Mr Couchman said.

Some managers paid "lip service'' to the hazard reporting system.

Refresher courses introduced by Mr White were eventually cancelled because of production demands, and too many people were absent from work. One time, no one at all turned up.

Morale at Pike River was quite low due to changing shift patterns and the working conditions.

Mr Couchman was also chairman of the health and safety committee, where there were sometimes more managers in attendance than workers, and staff "may have felt intimidated''.

Overall the miners perceived a low-level commitment to safety, which impacted on the safety culture lower in the organisation, he said.

A "them and us'' attitude did not help the flow of information from the coalface. Miners initially wore a different coloured helmet than management.

Mr Whittall, who attended the first health and safety meetings, was concerned the union would "dominate'' the committee.

People would be assigned a job, but then leave the mine and change shifts, and have to resign from the committee. That meant only a few of the remedial actions were investigated, Mr Couchman said.

The committee was restructured and was just starting to work before the explosion.

Mr Couchman also said he heard reports trainee miners were working at the coalface.

On paper, there were enough experienced staff, but absenteeism meant that in reality there were not.

Miners had to do a short induction lasting a few hours, medical and unit standard before they could go underground. Overall, trainee induction lasted three months.

- Greymouth Star

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