Gordon MacDonald is chief executive of WorkSafe NZ.
The Health and Safety at Work Act comes into effect on 4 April. In broad terms, what are the primary changes that are particularly relevant to small businesses?
I'd say there are three major changes. One is the concept of businesses cooperating and coordinating their activities where they're both engaged in delivering a piece of work. A clear example of that would be on a construction site where we have, say, joiners from one firm working alongside electricians from another firm. In that case, those two bodies need to get together and discuss how they're jointly going to manage the health and safety of their workers. The law recognises that businesses don't exist within four walls and never interact with others; they have lots of interaction, so it's making sure that health and safety is part of the communication that takes place between them.
The second issue deals with leadership, and the new law places duties on senior officers in companies to exercise due diligence. So if you're a board director or a chief executive you need to have an awareness of the risks that your organisation presents, the key controls that are exercised, and have some means of information coming to you about whether you're on track to deliver on your health and safety obligations so you can take any required action in a governance role.
This will help the business meet its health and safety duties.
The third element is worker engagement and participation in health and safety, and that's something the new law focuses on in a way that's more explicit than it did previously. So it's saying shift your mindset from health and safety being something that's done to workers, to something that's done with workers. They're the eyes and ears in an organisation, so getting them involved in risk identification and hazard mitigation will result in much richer intelligence. If you do that you'll also get much better buy-in to the solutions, because workers will have been part of their creation.
What are some practical steps that small businesses will need to take as a result of these changes?
The issues around leadership and employee engagement are probably easier to deal with in smaller firms. Leaders of small firms are generally a lot closer to what's happening on the ground, and similarly engaging with workers can be easier when everyone can get together in the morning over a cup of tea to talk through the issues you're facing on any day. We're not looking for an over-bureaucratisation of these processes; real engagement comes from having meaningful conversations around 'what are the risks, and how are we tracking and mitigating them?'.
Competence is another key ingredient.
That's simply the ability to go through something like a risk assessment process and come up with the right conclusions. That can be a bit scary, but in essence it's a fairly simple process, and I would urge small businesses to strip those processes back to the essentials and look for guidance in doing so.
There's a lot of guidance out there to refer to about what good practice looks like, for example on the WorkSafe website. Also a lot of trade associations are aligned to the new act and can offer help to member companies that can be more specific.
What is the more general cultural shift in health and safety that the new legislation is trying to encourage?
New Zealand's health and safety statistics for serious harm and fatalities are three times the rate of those in the UK, and they're more than one-and-a-half times as bad as Australia's so something needs to change if those outcomes are going to change. It's about shifting people's thinking about health and safety from 'the minimum amount of stuff I do to comply with the law that keeps me out of jail' to actually thinking about what is a business' number-one asset.
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Even in capital intensive businesses it's the people that are the number-one asset. So the questions then are 'how do I take care of that asset? And how am I going to look after people so that I have a productive organisation, and that our reputation with our customers is enhanced by being seen as a good employer?' The long-term proposition we're working on is that we'll achieve a cultural mindset that good health and safety is good for business, so let's do the best we can to be an excellent business.