Annual Report 2010/11
3. Responding to external events
The Statement of Intent 2010/11-2013/14 sets out the Department's commitments for 2010/11 and beyond, with progress detailed in section 4: Achieving our outcomes. During the year, the Department's operating environment changed considerably with two tragic external events.
The Pike River Coal mine tragedy and the Canterbury earthquakes placed additional demands on the organisation and were a focal point for the Department during 2010/11. As outlined below, the Department responded immediately and has undertaken significant follow-up work across the organisation that will continue into 2011/12.
Pike River Coal mine tragedy
The Pike River Coal mine tragedy occurred on 19 November 2010 with the death of 29 miners. The Department played an important role in the days immediately after this event, providing technical advice to the Police, Mines Rescue Service and mine management. An investigation team was on the ground within days.
The Department's investigation into this event is one of the largest it has ever undertaken under the Health and Safety in Employment Act. The information-gathering phase of the investigation was undertaken during the year, and analysis of this information is underway. The report will be finalised later in 2011. This work is progressing alongside the Police investigation.
At the Prime Minister's request, the Department initiated an underground coal mine safety audit using overseas experts. This concluded there were no immediate dangers in the mines, but identified various improvements that are being implemented. The Department also made significant contributions to the early stages of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the event by providing information about the mine and the Department's regulatory framework, and will continue to play an important role in the hearings.
International regulatory experts were brought to New Zealand to consider the Department's interactions with Pike River Coal prior to the explosions. The reviewers concluded that the Mines Inspectors' work with Pike River Coal was commendable, and they have made a number of operational recommendations which the Department is now implementing.
After the end of the financial year, the Government announced it would provide new funding for a Department initiative to set up a High Hazards Unit focusing on the extractives and petroleum/geothermal sectors. The unit will provide the Department and the sectors with increased capacity and capability to manage responsibilities for workplace health and safety.
Supporting Canterbury earthquake recovery efforts
The Department responded immediately to the September 2010 and February 2011 Canterbury earthquakes with operational support and advice for employers and employees. Despite the effect on its own staff, and the closure of its Christchurch offices, the Department was able to mobilise to assist first responders to the disaster and to support ongoing deconstruction and recovery work.
As the recovery got underway, the Department supported the main construction companies with health and safety standards for contractors during deconstruction, repair, and rebuild. A measure of the effectiveness of the Department's operational health and safety response is that no serious injuries have occurred in central Christchurch's 'red zone' since the 22 February 2011 earthquake, despite more than 500 workers involved in the demolition and recovery operations entering the area daily.
Local staff supported by National Office provided affected businesses with expert help on employment relations issues focusing on wellbeing and coping with stress, legislative and regulatory changes, and good employment practices.
Immigration New Zealand issued an automatic six-month visa extension for any foreign national whose work, visitor or student visa application could not be processed because of the earthquake.
To support future planning, the Department helped establish and resource the Canterbury Employment and Skills Board. This Board's role is to bring together the supply and demand sides of the Canterbury labour market and help shape the rebuild and long-term recovery planning. To forecast the demand for labour and skills, the Board is using a model developed by the Canterbury Development Corporation and Market Economics in conjunction with the Department.
The Department is also working closely with the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA). A senior manager was seconded to CERA to support its establishment. Work is focused on identifying the employment needs for the region, especially the skills that will be needed for the Christchurch rebuild. Programmes will balance highly skilled migrant attraction with domestic skill development and training.
The Government declared the Canterbury earthquake an adverse event.The Department assisted in a regulatory change process to ensure that employers would not receive levy penalties arising from this adverse event.
The Canterbury earthquakes tested the Department's business continuity and emergency management response (see box).
Maintaining core services in a crisis
The earthquake in Canterbury on 22 February 2011 resulted in the loss of life and severe damage to buildings, particularly in the central business district. The Department's response during the first few days was crucial for the recovery process.
Staff provided personal and professional help to those immediately affected by the tragedy, and were instrumental in helping people out of badly damaged buildings.
The Chief Executive declared a national departmental crisis, and the National Crisis Management Team coordinated the Department's response and supported staff as they attempted to deal with the aftermath of the earthquake. This was informed by lessons learnt from the September 2010 earthquake.
Staff completed health and safety and hazardous substances inspections of damaged buildings.
Passports and other documents were retrieved from the Crystal Plaza immigration office before it was declared inaccessible, enabling visas to be issued. Staff ensured a speedy immigration process for emergency response teams and their equipment from around the world.
Messages were released to the local refugee community whose members had been fearful after the September 2010 earthquake, with enquiries redirected to Wellington.