Coal bosses failed to log accidents, says union

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EVIDENCE THAT the privatised coal industry grossly under-reported work-related accidents and that the official safety watchdog published misleading figures is to be investigated by the Commons.

Leaders of colliery middle-management assert that a "sudden and mysterious" 400 per cent increase in one category of accidents showed that coal companies had previously failed in their statutory duty to record them.

Peter McNestry, leader of Nacods, the pit supervisors' union, said the Health and Safety Executive had only referred to a 52 per cent rise in the accidents - those which require a mineworker to take three days off work.

Figures from HM Inspectorate of Mines show that the lower figure can be arrived at by comparing data for 1 January and 30 November 1997. If the period 1 October 1996 to 30 November 1997 was used, the increase would have been 300 per cent, and if it had been extended further back for another three months, the rise would have been 400 per cent, Mr McNestry said.

Martin O'Neill, Chairman of the Commons Trade and Industry Committee, said he could not arrive at a final judgment on the figures without making inquiries, but saw a prima facie cause for concern. He said he would be contacting the executive and other interested parties; the committee would decide whether to conduct a full inquiry.

Mr McNestry has written to Mr O'Neill claiming that senior management ignored the law on reporting industrial accidents "on an organised basis".

Mr McNestry alleged that the coal industry had been engaged in a "fraud" and that the HSE had failed in its duty by not discovering the full extent of the problem. The executive should have begun its investigation earlier, he said. At least one pit manager had been dismissed for failing to report incidents at a mine.

A spokeswoman for the HSE said the organisation did not dispute there had been "serious under-reporting" of accidents at collieries, although she said the problem was worse in other industries. There was no question of the executive participating in any kind of cover-up.

She added that there was nothing sinister about the period chosen for the audit. Originally, figures collated showed there had only been a 24 per cent rise in "three-day" accidents, but collieries reassessed their records and the figure rose to 52 per cent.

The amount of under-reporting depended on which figures were chosen for the calculation. "You can choose different scenarios and come up with different answers, but our officials are not sure how Nacods arrived at its figures."

Mining firms denied any attempt to conceal the facts. A spokesman for RJB Mining, which runs 17 of the 23 privatised British pits, said that as soon as the company was aware of the under-reporting, management informed the HSE. "It was RJB which triggered the alert. We have nothing to hide; nothing to fear."

He conceded that the mechanism by which accidents had been reported to HSE was "flawed". However, he said, the company had nothing to fear from an investigation by the select committee.