Row looms over change to colliery safety laws

THE Government faces another highly public row over the coal industry in the new year - this time over sensitive proposals to amend strict safety legislation.

Unions yesterday threatened legal action over plans by the Health and Safety Executive, which they claim amount to 'deregulation' and would lead to more deaths and injuries in the pits.

HSE officials, instructed by Margaret Thatcher's administration to take a fresh look at safety in the pits ahead of privatisation, are to present the 'administrative package' to the Health and Safety Commission in January.

If the commission endorses the package, Nacods, the pit deputies' union, and the National Union of Mineworkers will start legal action to prevent the Department of Employment introducing the rules. They will argue that the Government would not be fulfilling its responsibility to 'maintain and improve' miners' welfare under the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act.

If the commission refuses to back the proposals, government plans for privatisation could become unworkable. Much of the analysis on the profitability of pits has been conducted by John T Boyd, the US mining engineering firm, which has assumed the introduction of US mining methods, which would be allowed under the new safety regime.

Under the plans, much existing law has been removed or transferred into 'codes of practice' which would not be mandatory. Existing mining legislation gives pit deputies the statutory duty to inspect coal faces before work begins and to supervise production.

The administrative package proposes that the role of the deputy would be divided between supervisor and inspector, without any evidence that it would 'maintain or improve' safety, the unions argue.

Pit deputies would no longer have the right to lead men out of collieries if they thought working conditions were dangerous. The Health and Safety Executive plans would give much more power to management, but unions argue that managers are not always present and occasionally immediate action is required.

The increasing 'Americanisation' of British mining has led to lower safety standards, unions believe. Peter McNestry, leader of Nacods, argues that unsafe US methods were used at the Point of Ayr colliery in north Wales before Christmas, leading to injury. According to industry sources, a coal face was extended too far without proper support. British Coal has promised an investigation.

Mr McNestry believes American methods are not suitable because British pits are deeper. He believes that the figures for injuries in US pits are not reliable.

Unions have objected to the proposed appointment of John T Boyd as an 'independent' arbiter of the viability of 10 pits which were under threat of closure by the end of January.

British Coal, however, pointed out that the company was suggested in a judgment delivered in the High Court before Christmas. The judge insisted that there should be some independent scrutiny of the decision to shut the 10 mines. British Coal said last night that the unions had been invited to discuss the issues, but that no date had been fixed.

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