Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The nature of public sector incompetence

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Public sector incompetence reaches new depths in NZ. I have already written about some suspicions I have with about the way senior executives were appointed to Pike River Coal. Those issues have yet to be raised, and they probably will in future. There have been a number of issues which have emerged;
1. Regulation: The cancellation of spot mine inspections as opposed to regular appointments where the miners can be encouraged to tidy practices up for the inspection. i.e. This tends to result in a culture of lax safety concern in a mine. The safety of all is threatened by the indulgences of just one who can cause a mine explosion. The preservation of safety standards in coal mines is therefore critical. Campbell Live reported that the Dept advised that inspectors were not required, even though used in overseas mining industries like Australia.
2. Caution: There is every reason to believe that the government and the company is more interested in protecting its reputation than lives. It has taken the argument that it wants to protect existing lives as opposed to jeopardising others. That might well be sensible if the prospect of danger is high...but now that I have seen the layout of the mine, I am inclined to say that the rescue team should have gone straight in. see Campbell Live for the latest news.

This caution is the result of a government fearful of risking lives. Whilst that is a laudable quality, one needs to perform a risk assessment, and ultimately to leave it to rescuers to make that decision. In this case, there are rescuers prepared to enter the mine and the police commissioner will not allow them. Why? Because there risk assessment is that its too dangerous.
There is no question that there is some risk....but risks are managed...not avoided. I have talked about risk management with investment. It is the same for mining.
At the moment we have 29 people at risk of dying or dead. They might have died instantly in the blast, they might have died of blood loss since, or they might be severely injured, and are rapidly becoming dehydrated. This is improbable given the amount of water in the mines. There is usually water dripping, though if people were so injured that they could not move, they might be stranded in a dry section. There is good reason for believing the following:
1. The miners are in different sections of the mine, so they have different chances of living
2. The 'spaghetti' design of the developing headings at the core of the mine actually reduced the pressure released from the blast. This is important for several reasons. It means that there was some absorption of the blast because the pressure will be released along the line of least resistance. There will be some frictional loss as the blast air passes out the 2.5km heading. It is possible that a person might have been standing mid-way along a circular development, so the pressure was equilibrated at that point. Anyone there would not have felt the blast, or if close, it would have been greatly softened.
3. The smoke from the mine combustion, probably coal burning/smouldering underground since has reduced the chances of anyone the evidence to me suggests they ought to have gone in straight away. The mine gas levels were never lower than immediately after the blast. If the evidence shows that any deaths occurred away from and away from air circulation paths, it is probable that the lives of these miners could have been saved....if they survived the blast. The chances of a 2nd blast after a first one are unlikely.

Some poor decisions have been made. Its probable that any alternative decision now will make a difference. After all the prospect of blood loss is moot if they have stopped bleeding. The risk now is dehydration...and that only if they have no access to water.

This is why the company ought to have handled the issue. They will happily allow the govt to deal with it because government, or more specifically, the public service is not accountable. The mine CEO ought to have been called upon to make the decisions knowing that a law suit would result if he screwed up.

The problem with public servants is that they are accustomed to making arbitrary decisions because that is the nature of statutory law. Business also has to comply with statutory law, but corporate decision-makers are far more nibble at making complex decisions because they deal in the real world, where they have to consider context, multiple parameters, etc. This is why the CEO of Pike River knew to handle the problem over to the government, and the Police Commissioner of course is obliged to accept the responsibility. It was an undesirable development. It could be argued that it created a conflict of the company and government now have to be concerned with their reputation, which might even see efforts made to destroy evidence to protect both parties from political and financial injury.
Andrew Sheldon

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