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Ignore the scaremongers - concentrate on culture

Dec 04, 2014

By Gregor Coster and David Clarke

Despite what some scaremongers are saying, WorkSafe New Zealand is not poised to pounce on company directors once the country’s proposed new health and safety laws are passed.

The punitive metaphors being deployed by some translating the proposed new laws for boards and management debase the key intent of the Health and Safety Reform Bill currently before Parliament’s Transport and Industrial Relations Committee.

The Bill, expected to be enacted in 2015, is actually about changing the culture around health and safety in this country.

An average of 75 people a year are killed in New Zealand’s workplaces. Proportionalise the deaths by population and the equivalent figure in the United Kingdom is 11 people killed in work place incidents.

A further 6,000 or so notifications of serious injuries to workers are made to WorkSafe each year and estimates range from 600 – 900 deaths occur each year due to occupational health issues (such as exposure to asbestos).

Health and safety has been in too many workplaces the add-on at the end of management meetings, or even rarely raised on board agendas. That’s no longer an option.

The lessons for directors from the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety are plain: you need a well-funded health and safety plan, a reporting system of leading and lagging indicators (with benchmarks), a hazards risk register that you actually keep a good eye on and you need regular independent audits and surveys of your staff.

Walking around the workplace for half an hour and chatting to staff is just not going to cut it. You need someone to survey your staff professionally and carry out an independent audit. Unless you do that you are flying blind. The boardroom alone is a dangerous place from which to view the world.

The Bill sets out to make health and safety the responsibility of every person in a business – from the director to the shop floor worker. But as the saying goes: the fish rots from the head down. Boards have to make health and safety part of their regular decision making; part of the company culture.

The problem sectors for health and safety issues in this country are well known. Forestry is under pressure to make change. In the past year, WorkSafe has safety-assessed 200 linehauling and 200 tree felling and written 850 enforcement notices and 115 stop work orders. That, combined with focus on the problem within the industry, has shown a 20 per cent reduction in serious injuries in the past year. It’s not a trend yet and more work’s required.

Manufacturing, construction, farming and the work around the Canterbury rebuild must make the same commitments to safety and health at work if the Government’s target of a 25% reduction in deaths and serious injuries by 2020 is to be met.

The ultimate target is obviously zero harm. Getting there is a matter of implementing steps. It may be easy to identify multiples of hazards, but two things stand out as first steps: take a hard look at your supply chain (including contractors) and how you manage the risks around that and identify the six key areas in the business where the risk of serious harm is most likely. Start here.

If there is something in your business that has big issues around safety (say a production plant, or maybe the use of quad bikes), you need to take some hard decision about the future – to invest for safety, or not. That may change the shape of your business …even end it. Better to quit if you can’t mitigate the risk than for someone to lose their life and subsequently, for the company, costs that may end the business anyway.

The intent of the proposed legislation is about ensuring responsibility is accepted where it lies. It is also about incentives for getting health and safety systems right. The main one is a happy, healthy workforce is your best asset and brand ambassador.

A secondary incentive may eventuate in ACC levy reductions. A “Safety Star Rating Scheme”, being worked on jointly by WorkSafe, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC), is expected to go to Cabinet for consideration soon.

But here’s a final tip: if you decide to wait for such rewards, your health and safety culture is wrong. You need to change it now - ahead of politicians deciding you need to do so.


* WorkSafe New Zealand, a new Crown agent, has an annual budget of $84 million and assets of $14 million and employs 500 staff. Those staff include 167 inspectors, whose number is expected to grow to 200, with currently around 50% HSNO qualified too.

Professor Gregor Coster is chairman of WorkSafe New Zealand, a director of ACC and former chair of Counties Manukau Health and West Coast DHBs and deputy chair of Pharmac.

David Clarke is a director of strategic advisory Cranleigh and other companies such as Watercare, Ngai Tahu Tourism, Jucy Group and Health Alliance.

Category: News