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Workplace health and safety must become a priority for company directors and chief executives, Institute of Directors chief executive William Whittaker says.
New Zealand had a ''very poor record'' of workplace health and safety, he told a meeting of the Otago Southland branch of the institute this week.
''The financial cost of that poor record is around $3.5 billion per annum.''
The meeting, held by the institute and the Business Leaders' Health and Safety Forum, aimed to educate directors on the responsibility they would have for workplace health and safety under the Health and Safety Reform Bill before Parliament at present.
And it called on business leaders to commit to improved workplace health and safety before the Bill came into effect.
''It [health and safety] should remain very prominent on a board's agenda from now on, if it's not already,'' Mr Whittaker said.
Business Leaders' Health and Safety Forum steering group member Don Stock, of WorkSafe New Zealand, said 75 people died in the workforce annually.
''That's only the tip of the iceberg though because we estimate 600-800 people die early as a result of work illnesses.''
Directors had to work to provide greater safety for contractors, who often worked in risky environments, he said.
''Contracting isn't an excuse to get rid of your responsibilities for health and safety,'' he said.
Under the reformed Bill, companies' directors and chief executives would be more liable for contractors they employed.
''You should be doing it because you are wanting to keep people safe not because you are scared of the new legislation coming in,'' he said.
''New Zealand's poor record in health and safety can't be fixed unless you take measures to improve the situation for contractors.''
For New Zealand's health and safety record to improve, there needed to be a change in culture which started at the governance level.
''Everywhere that we had good health and safety outcomes, there was good, strong leadership from the top.''
Business Leaders' Health and Safety Forum executive director Julian Hughes called on business leaders to commit to better health and safety, to manage it and to measure it.
''Making the commitment is pretty easy,'' he said.
''But what we really want is for people to take action.''