New Zealand has a long-standing problem with workplace deaths and injuries, but matters came to a head when, in November 2010, a methane gas explosion in the Pike River coal mine on the west coast of the South Island killed 29 men. The subsequent Royal Commission of Enquiry found considerable fault with the employer and the regulatory agency (then the Department of Labour).
In parallel with the Commission’s enquiry, a government-appointed independent taskforce reviewed the regulatory system and legislation. The taskforce report made sweeping recommendations for change, including reform of the regulatory system and adoption of the Australian model health and safety bill (available here). In places the bill bears a remarkable resemblance to the UK Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 and it is proposed it will be given the same name but, most significantly, it moves the New Zealand legislation from hazard management to risk management.
The government restructured several state sector organisations, resulting in the Department of Labour being absorbed into the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE). MBIE itself commissioned an independent report into the safety regulatory function and its performance prior to the Pike River disaster. That report concluded that the lack of effective regulatory work had contributed to the disaster.
In addition to the above, the forestry industry has an appalling record of deaths and serious injuries. Plainly, there was an urgent need to reform the safety regulator if the trust of employers, employees, unions and the public generally was to be regained.
One of the first steps to a better health and safety record was the formation of the Health and Safety Association of New Zealand (HASANZ), which takes over from the work of the Occupational Health and Safety Industry Group (OHSIG). HASANZ will represent a wide range of professional bodies and be the “go to place” for information and advice in the health and safety space.
The government had earlier set the target of a 25 per cent reduction in serious harm injuries by 2020 but in 2013 it acted swiftly by adopting the Australian bill, establishing a new WorkSafe NZ agency and hiring Gordon Macdonald from the UK Health and Safety Executive to lead it.
Realistically, there are only five years left for WorkSafe to lead and facilitate the required 25 per cent reduction in serious injuries. The UK now has 40 years’ experience of Robens-style legislation and has set an enviable (but still imperfect) record. How long will it take to approach that record in New Zealand? Can it be done? Perhaps – if safety-related risk and its management are seen as part of wider risk management with the associated benefits for employers.
Chris Peace is a New Zealand risk management consultant
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