Workplace safety consultation begins

The casual observer might be forgiven for thinking the consultation about reform of health and safety law and regulations is all about reducing the incidence of orange road cones.

Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Brooke van Velden says the proliferation of road cones which do not always make sense sums up the country’s health and safety culture.

Since many people get in a lather about apparently unnecessary cones, it’s a natty way to attract attention to the subject, but hopefully those who respond to the consultation, which runs until the end of October, will consider more than just these orange eyesores.

The consultation is the first step towards meeting the one-sentence commitment in the Act New Zealand-National coalition agreement — to reform health and safety law and regulations.

The consultation wants feedback on what is working well, whether health and safety requirements are too strict, or too ambiguous to comply with, whether there are difficulties in the overlap between health and safety law and other requirements, and if the consequences for non-compliance are appropriately balanced and reasonable.

It also wants to know if respondents consider the threshold at which work-related risks need to be managed is under- or overcautious.

Businesses are being asked to share the rationale for their health and safety actions and whether these actions are effective.

There has been ongoing consternation about our workplace health and safety record.

A report last year from the Business Leaders’ Health and Safety Forum showed on average 73 people were killed in work accidents each year. It estimated workplace deaths and injuries were costing the economy $4.4 billion a year.

As we have said before, hopes were high for the regulatory ability of WorkSafe when it was established at the end of 2013, and this increased when laws were beefed up in the Health and Safety at Work Act, which came into force in 2016 in the aftermath of the Pike River Mine deaths.

Photo: RNZ
Photo: RNZ
That Act was based on the Australian law, but gains across the Ditch have not been replicated here. It may have been foolish to expect them to be, given our different circumstances.

Australia has no ACC system, and it still has widespread union coverage in the private sector, giving employees an effective avenue to communicate workplace safety concerns.

Here, there has been considerable pressure on WorkSafe to save the day, but as a damning review released in 2022 pointed out, given its enabling legislation and broad role, the reality was it would never have sufficient resources to address all health and safety risks.

Combine that with the lack of a clear and concise strategy and it is no wonder its scattergun approach has not been successful.

Feedback on government agency funding, the rate of the health and safety at work levy, or the effectiveness and efficiency measures and targets for the frontline activities of WorkSafe are out of scope for the consultation. The consultation document says these are being progressed separately.

The 2022 reviewers wanted more emphasis on reinforcing that businesses are accountable for workplace health and safety because WorkSafe would never have enough resources to engage with every workplace. Without such focus there was a risk of business operators not taking their duty of care seriously because the likelihood of enforcement action against them was low.

Act’s policy documents show it considers the law is unfairly weighted against employers and too light on workers who choose to ignore rules and safety practices, endangering themselves and others.

It says there is a need for a provision in the Workplace Health and Safety Act for immediate dismissal of a worker acting in a wilfully irresponsible manner, but employment law would already provide for this.

It is important this consultation does not just hear from disgruntled employers.

As the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions says, good health and safety relies on having a strong regulator, capable employers, and informed and empowered workers working together.