Snapshot shows shortcomings

A newly-released independent report on WorkSafe’s investigative capability is depressing reading, but not entirely unexpected.

Hopes may have been high for the regulatory ability of the stand-alone organisation when it came into being in 2013. Even more so after laws were beefed up when the Health and Safety at Work Act came into force in 2016 in the aftermath of the deaths at the Pike River Mine.

Since then, however, grumblings have been increasing about the adequacy of investigations, along with concerns there are too few of them.

The 2019 report released to RNZ last week was described as a snapshot of the current state of the organisation’s investigative capability so any necessary improvements could be identified. It found many failings in the system, but still concluded investigations were generally of good quality.

The lack of confidence expressed by some families of those who never made it home from work is understandable when the system seems to have many basic flaws. These include overworked and undertrained investigators, too few investigators, inadequate and outmoded information gathering and recording practices, poor case management, and insufficient victim focus.

It is difficult not to feel some sympathy for investigators, who appear to be trapped in a malfunctioning system without proper oversight or training.

The man who compiled the report, ex-assistant police commissioner (investigation and intelligence) Gavin Jones, says he equates the demands placed on investigators to be only slightly below the load and expectations placed on police detectives, but the WorkSafe investigators training is not up to the task. He bluntly points out that if WorkSafe is to realise its ambition to be a world-class regulator it must develop world-class investigators.

It is hard to understand why dedicated Victim Liaison Officers were not already deployed as a matter of course for every fatality investigation as suggested by Mr Jones. Investigators reported being stressed out by having to deal with victims and their families when they had no training in this. Concerns about this issue are not new.

WorkSafe’s chief executive Phil Parkes, who took on the job in January, has said he will set up a specialist unit to take pressure off investigators and provide better service to victims.

He rejects any suggestion the Jones report is showing up years of under-performance and says WorkSafe has continually improved since 2013.

He acknowledges there is more to be done and sees the $5 million improvement programme now under way, which has already involved an increase in inspectors and managers, as the opportunity to make the organisation go from good to great.

Success in prosecutions is often quoted by WorkSafe as a measure of its effectiveness, but concerns remain there are not enough investigations and that easy cases are being cherry-picked for prosecution.

Also, as a lawyer specialising in health and safety, Hazel Armstrong, pointed out last week, when referring to the continuing scandal of forestry deaths, the organisation is not making the most of its powers under the Act. It is focussing on the immediate hazard involving contractors and workers rather than making directors and officers of forest-owning companies liable. This means systemic problems relating to the procurement practices of these companies are not being dealt with.

We remain unconvinced that WorkSafe is close to meeting the lofty statements on its website regarding its regulator role.

As we have said before, it is time politicians paid closer attention to what is happening in this area. Proposed improvements will need to be closely monitored to ensure they are effective and sufficient.

Relying on the mere passing of the new Act to miraculously change everything has not been a safe or sensible tactic.

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