Mines Inspector not here to wave stick

Tony Forster, the personable Scotsman now New Zealand’s Chief Inspector of mines says he is here to engage with high hazard workplaces rather than “wave a big stick”, at them.

“The role of the High Hazards Unit is to benefit the industry, not to browbeat it. The only we can truly identify and understand the high level issues that wreak big societal damage is to get out there and engage constructively with the operators.”

Forster has worked in the mining industry in the UK for over 40 years and was Her Majesty’s Principal Inspector of Mines before taking on the New Zealand contract.

His grandfather and uncle were both killed in mining accidents in the UK, so he brings a unique perspective to the role.

“Mining has a poor health and safety record internationally, with the UK’s as bad as any back in the day. It’s important that we can learn from previous mistakes to really raise the game.”

He says “honest dialogue and honest exchange” are keys to meeting the current challenges facing high hazard industries in New Zealand.

“We have to take stock and say disasters such as Pike River are unacceptable – that people have a right to come to work in a safe environment. By working together I believe we can create mines that are both safe and productive. I don’t see these things as being inconsistent with each other.”

He says the local mining industry simply can’t afford to have one more disaster, whatever the scale.

“For me, that’s non-negotiable.”

The mining tragedy within his own family didn’t deter Forster, or his brother Michael from joining the industry.

“I started as a 17 year old coalface production worker. My mother was just as proud of me then as she was many years later when I deputised as the Chief Inspector of Mines in the UK.”

Forster’s family is from Prestonpans, a small coastal mining town near Edinburgh, Scotland, where he says mining has done “both good for, and damage to” the community for nearly 1000 years.

“Prestonpans has an incredibly rich mining history. I guess you could say it’s embedded in our DNA.”

Forster holds a Master of Science in Occupational Safety and Health and is a chartered Mining Engineer, a fellow of the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining and a member of the Institute of Mining Engineers Technical Committee.

In his previous role with UK HSE, he was chief adviser on UK mines rescue and emergency planning. He is also a Board Member of the International Mines Rescue Body and is a Principal Judge at International Mines Rescue competitions.

Forster and his wife Valerie have moved to New Zealand for the duration of his contract as Chief Inspector of mines for the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s High Hazards Unit which was established to strengthen the capacity and expertise to inspect mines and ensure safety in the mining industry in New Zealand.

Forster is in charge of a team of specialist inspectors and is leading the Ministry’s health and safety regulatory work in relation to mines including both underground and opencast.

A few weeks into the role Forster has identified several factors that have impeded New Zealand’s health and safety record, including the country’s size and isolation.

“There are some good people in the mining industry here, but not great depth in terms of the mining expertise you might find in larger countries. The industry here is also lacking strategic health and safety support from off-shore. Part of my job is to build stronger links between the New Zealand and health and safety expertise overseas, particularly from Australia and the UK where I obviously have very close ties.”

He says our natural isolation has also resulted in the extractive sector suffering from being a little too parochial and inward-looking.

“Some health and safety practices that have become imbedded here may be at odds with what is considered as an international standard. But I believe the New Zealand mining industry has the tools, abilities and talents to put its house in order. If I can play a part in lifting the game and meeting the challenges presented by the Royal Commission Report I’d be very happy.”

Forster says 42 workplaces have been identified as falling under the High Hazards Unit. Intervention plans are being developed for around 20 of these.

He says the first goal is engage constructively with each organisation to educate them of the High Hazard Unit’s role.

“Ultimately as a regulator we have to maintain our ability to enforce but that’s not the first place we go. We are about explaining the situation in a professional way, and assisting operators to look at their business and answer some stark questions about their health and safety practices.”

Forster believes the new Crown agency being proposed to encompass the High Hazards Unit, Mines Inspectorate and several other health and safety organisations is a good thing.

“Having a cohesive rather than splintered group can promote engagement with the New Zealand workforce at all levels around health and safety issues. Taking stock is the big challenge that was thrown out by the Royal Commission and something that is essential if we’re going to do justice to the 29 men who died and still lie underground at Pike River.”

As he cements himself in the Chief Inspector’s role, Forster says the mining industry has provided him with a “tremendous life, great opportunities, great friends, first class training and a good grasp of what’s important”.

“I believe in mining and the role it can play as a significant contributor to the economy when it is done sensibly, responsibly and safely.”