Worker safety progress too slow

The announcement of an investigation into health and safety practices at the nation’s ports will be too little too late for those affected by deaths and injuries in those workplaces in recent years.

Michael Wood
Michael Wood
Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety Michael Wood announced the investigation last week, following two deaths of port workers within a week.

The Transport Accident Investigation Commission will examine the recent fatalities to see if any system-wide safety improvements are needed.

All port companies are also being asked to review their operations and provide assurances appropriate harm minimisation is occurring for all high-risk activities.

The Ports Leadership Group, which comprises representatives from the Maritime Union of New Zealand, the Rail and Maritime Transport Union, the Port Industry Association, port chief executives, WorkSafe, and Maritime New Zealand, is to prepare advice on any additional priority actions for Mr Wood to consider, including possible regulation changes.

As well as this, in the next fortnight the 13 major international commercial ports around the country will be inspected by Maritime New Zealand officers and Worksafe inspectors.

Why it should have come to this is baffling.

Mr Wood says he knows New Zealanders will be rightly concerned about the safety culture at the ports.

But safety concerns about the operation of our ports are not new. Questions about conditions at the Ports of Auckland have featured prominently in news stories in recent years. The need for an ‘‘immediate’’ shift to a safety-first culture, being emphasised by Mr Wood now in his discussions with representatives of the various parts of the sector, was evident years ago.

Last year Mr Wood asked Maritime NZ to work with unions and employers to look at the key issues involved in the deaths and injuries in the sector. Worker fatigue and the fact workers were dealing with heavy and potentially dangerous machinery had already been identified as key issues. These seem less than earth-shattering revelations.

It is hard to accept his view there has been good ‘‘process’’ (did he mean progress?) over recent months, in the face of two deaths in a week, even if it is acknowledged those deaths will still be subject to investigation.

The unions are keen to see enforceable national standards for health and safety for stevedoring operations as the outcome of the investigation.

Hours of work, shift patterns, productivity pressures, training, fatigue, and equipment are all areas of concern.

Mr Wood’s investigation announcement came on the eve of Workers Memorial Day, the time when remembrance ceremonies commemorate workers killed at work in the past year and those who died from illnesses related to their work.

In the year to the end of October last year, 63 people died at work and annual deaths from work-related conditions are estimated to be between 750 and 900 a year. As well as that, in the year to April last year, 34,659 people were off work for more than a week with work-related injuries.

It is no wonder the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) says we have a long way to go when it comes to keeping workers safe on the job.

The CTU president Richard Wagstaff points out New Zealand does not have a corporate manslaughter law, unlike many other similar countries.

This would be a strong deterrent against companies and management who cut corners and put workers’ lives and safety at risk.

Even if there was political appetite for this, and there has been no shouting from the rooftops on that, it is hard to see how well it might work when there has been ongoing concern about the adequacy and frequency of investigations under the current system.

Workers, dead and alive, deserve better.


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