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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

In the Spotlight—Tony Forster

Tony Forster


What is your background?

I grew up in the mining village of Prestonpans in Scotland and have 40 years’ experience as a miner and mining engineer, over half of which has been as a regulator. I started in the mining industry at 17 as a mining craft apprentice and by 19 was working on mechanised coal faces and tunnels. I also joined the mines rescue service around this time and served as a rescue brigadesman and team captain until 1988, attending several mine fires and other emergencies. I progressed from coalface worker to colliery manager and deputy head of industrial relations with the National Coal Board before joining the Health and Safety Executive as a principal inspector of mines. I worked in many coal field areas of Scotland, England and Wales before leaving HSE to join WorkSafe NZ in 2013.

How did you become involved in health & safety?

From my earliest days in the mining industry I was exposed to serious injury and death, but also to some capable and motivated people who wanted to make a difference and ensure that hard lessons were not forgotten. At the very root of this was the memory of my own mother, whose father was killed in a pit accident when she was only six months old. No child deserves that. To compound the misery, her mother’s brother was killed in a pit accident shortly afterwards and his body brought home to her mother on an open cart to prepare him for burial.

Describe your current employment.

I am chief inspector extractives, a role formed as a result of the Pike River disaster. It covers all mining activity, surface and underground, all construction tunnels and certain aspects of operational tunnels. In total there are around 50 “high hazard” sites. I am also responsible for regulation of 1100 quarries and alluvial mining operations.

What training have you had for the role?

I’ve had a lifetime’s training, which continues every day. In addition to completing a mining craft apprenticeship and being a fully trained power loading face worker, shot firer and mine deputy, I served for 14 years as a mines rescue team member and team captain. I worked at various large coal mines as undermanager, deputy manager and colliery manager. I am a Chartered Mining Engineer (previously a Chartered Scientist when engaged in university research) and a Fellow of the Institution of Mining Engineers. I was president of the South Wales Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining and held a UK warrant as HM Principal Inspector of Mines and Quarries. I have a 1st Class Mine Managers Certificate and a Master of Science degree in occupational health and safety, specialising in fire engineering, physiology and emergency planning.

What has been your most satisfying achievement so far?

I believe if you work hard and stand up for what you believe in, while sometimes you will be branded a troublemaker, occasionally good things also happen. Playing a pivotal role as a trusted emissary to bring the UDM and NUM mining trade unions together again to hold joint health and safety meetings – after more than 25 years separation and bitterness forged in the year-long miners’ strike – was very satisfying. Being entrusted by the New Zealand Government with my current role at such a turbulent time following the Pike River mine disaster is a great honour.

What’s the hardest thing you’ve had to do?

Persuade my wife to leave our grown up children, grandchildren and our Labrador dog behind to come with me to work in New Zealand. On a more serious note, confronting the physical reality of people who have died a violent death in mining disasters is difficult. Responding to a fatality or ongoing emergency as a mines inspector, you have to be capable of thinking clearly and providing leadership in highly stressful and potential dangerous situations.

The Bilsthorpe colliery disaster in Nottinghamshire in 1993 and the Gleison drift mine disaster in South Wales in 2011 stand out as particularly challenging. But the very hardest part is meeting the families: the partners, parents and children whose lives have been suddenly ripped apart by workplace death. Meeting the large numbers of people affected by Pike River, listening to their personal stories and feeling their anger is difficult because nothing you do can ever take that pain away.

What has surprised you about the role?

That I’m not surprised. I’ve done this type of work for some time now and often found myself at the centre of some of the most difficult situations, so I fully expected this job to be challenging and rewarding in fairly equal measure, and in that I’ve not been disappointed.

How has the role changed you?

I hope I have grown into the role, but the real challenge is to try not to change! Despite some forlorn attempts to persuade me that “accidents always happen and there is nothing you can do to change that”, I take heart from the many excellent managers, supervisors and workers I have met in New Zealand who are prepared to stand up for a better way of working so that we can all go home to our families after a good day at work.

What advice would you give anyone thinking of entering the field?

If you are a strong performer, prepared to stand up for what you believe in and have a passion to make a real difference to peoples’ working lives, you will find health and safety fulfils all the challenges and rewards you need. It takes a special kind of person to engage effectively with everyone from the boardroom to the coalface and be an effective advocate for the health and safety message. You also need to be perpetually uncomfortable with the status quo and constantly on the lookout for the next “big thing”.

The world is full of hand-wringers and 20/20 hindsight PhD candidates, but by that time the damage is already done. This job is about stopping a disaster before it happens. Because it doesn’t happen, no one will ever thank you for that; but if it does go wrong, well, you know the rest! But that’s part and parcel of this occupation and if that sort of stuff excites you, this is your profession.

What is the most risky thing you’ve done?

I was the eldest of three brothers and my mother always drummed it into me that “I had to show a good example”. That stuck with me in the workplace and I have never glorified risk taking or risk takers. Too often I’ve seen their luck run out.

But I’ve had a few close shaves in my earlier days working on longwall coal faces where the geology was poor, and in the 1000m deep shafts changing the winding ropes. At that time in the UK around 60 men would die every year and many more were seriously injured. Some appeared to accept that was par for the job. That’s why I understand that part of the New Zealand psyche.

But just as it changed within the UK mining industry, so it can (and has to) change here. Calculated risks have been taken as part of my involvement in mines rescue activity when lives were at stake.

Digging through a 57m rock-fall or entering an area of a mine in which people are trapped and which has collapsed or is on fire or flooded, invariably carries increased risk. I believe the legal tolerance regarding risk has to be filtered when emergency services are engaged in life-saving activity. By definition, emergency services travel in the opposite direction to those who are evacuating the scene. Dynamic risk assessments are required by those in a position of command and control to ensure as many risks as practicable are eliminated, isolated or mitigated.

Thomson Reuters

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