Andrew Stevens: Urgent step change needed on safety

Law changes have big implications for the building industry, says Andrew Stevens

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

New Zealand's construction sector is bracing for a wave of recently announced changes to our health and safety legislation, which will have considerable implications for the way the sector operates.

In June last year, in the wake of the Pike River disaster, the Minister of Labour established an independent taskforce to review New Zealand's workplace health and safety systems and make recommendations based on its findings.

The findings were sobering. The executive report, released in April this year, called for an "urgent, sustainable step-change in harm prevention activity and a dramatic improvement in outcomes".

Statistics provided by the taskforce show why an urgent step-change to the status quo is needed.

New Zealand's workplace injury rates are approximately twice that of Australia, and almost six times that of Britain. More than 100 people each year are killed in the workplace and around one in 10 workers are harmed.

The annual economic and social cost of work-related injuries is estimated at around $3.5 billion.

The taskforce recommended the Government establish a new workplace health and safety agency and enact a new Workplace Health and Safety Act based on the Australian model law.

Several advantages to basing the new legislation on this were identified. These include the fact that New Zealand would be able to capitalise on the considerable work Australia has invested in modernising its safety legislation, enabling us to start with a comprehensive set of legislation and regulations as guidance.

Many New Zealand companies, including our largest construction firms, have a presence in the Australian market, so there would be benefit in a consistent transtasman approach that would reduce transaction costs for firms and individuals operating in both markets.

Having been part of the New Zealand construction landscape for more than a decade, Leighton Contractors has worked on some of the country's most high-profile and challenging projects, and has an impressive portfolio of current work across multiple sectors.

As our parent company, Leighton Holdings, is listed on the Australian Stock Exchange we broadly operate under the framework of the Australian Health and Safety legislation within New Zealand.

The approach is helping us realise great benefits for workplace safety.

Today, our telecommunications division, through Visionstream, is delivering ultrafast broadband (UFB) and field services contracts for Chorus.

Within the infrastructure sector, we are part of the SH16 Causeway Upgrade project. Our services team is managing road and tunnel maintenance contracts in Wellington; and our mining division is operating the Favona underground gold mine in Waihi. Across all of these projects, safety and health is our number one priority.

As an example, our approach to safety and health was adopted to help safely deliver the Northern Gateway Alliance (NGA) Newmarket Viaduct replacement project.

This project had a considerable risk profile and involved deconstructing the old viaduct, while constructing a new, 690m viaduct in a live, urban motorway environment.

It is testament to the systems, and the dedication of the Alliance participants, that we achieved an excellent safety record that has been recognised - through two safety awards - as setting a new industry benchmark.

It is welcome news that the Government has broadly accepted the recommendations of the taskforce as there is currently little legislative impetus for those at a company governance level to change industry participant behaviours.

Under current New Zealand legislation a director or officer is liable only if they participated in the offence in some way such as directing or authorising the failure. They must also have known that the situation was unsafe or in breach of the Health and Safety Act.

Australian law differs from this and places a positive duty on directors and officers to exercise proper due diligence to ensure that their business complies with the law.

The changes to our health and safety systems will see a new regulatory framework founded on the allocation of duties to those who are in the best position to control workplace health and safety risks.

To quote the taskforce: "those people who can prevent workplace harm have an explicit obligation to do so".

The changes will also place duty on upstream participants in the supply chain such as designers, manufacturers and suppliers of machinery.

Another area of concern highlighted by the taskforce was the low levels of employee participation in the management of workplace health and safety issues.

We see great value in high levels of participation. Across our projects in New Zealand we have genuinely effective safety committees in place.

These have a minimal number of management and a maximum number of employee participants. They provide employees with an open forum to table concerns and suggest improvements.

Effective safety initiatives are often developed from these committees - those closest to the physical works are in the best position to advise how to remove risks from the workplace.

Our employees are also constantly engaged throughout the safety process. They are active participants in inductions, pre-starts, permit systems, training and verifications of competency checks.

As a local, but Australian-founded, company that values safety and health above all else, Leighton Contractors is well placed to assist with implementing any new laws based on Australian Model Law as we already operate under the intent of this law within New Zealand.

The current New Zealand Health and Safety in Employment Act will be replaced by a new Health and Safety at Work Bill, which is scheduled to be introduced into Parliament in December.

I look forward to seeing the downstream improvements for worker safety that this will bring.

NZ's workplace injuries

• 2x the rate of Australia
• 6x the rate in Britain.
• More than 100 people are killed in the workplace each year at a ration of
• 1:10 workers worker harmed and an annual cost of $3.5b

Andrew Stevens is General Manager of Leighton Contractors in New Zealand.

- NZ Herald

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