Having learnt numerous lessons from being the lawyer who represented the NZ-based Pike River mine directors and chief executive following the 2010 tragedy, Stacey Shortall knows better than most the nuances and legislative minefields attached to health and safety issues.

Shortall says the most pressing health and safety issue on the minds of business executives today is how to practically meet the requirements of the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, which becomes law on April 4th.

"I do believe that many Kiwi businesses understand what's required of them under the new Act and they are taking the reform seriously," she says. "However, it's the progression to implementing practical solutions and actions that is weighing most heavily on the shoulders of the NZ business community."

Shortall says because the new legalisation is based on the Australian regulatory framework, businesses are looking to engage with health and safety advisers who already have experience in the Australian environment, and who can provide practical advice to NZ companies.

Advertisement

After a long lead-in period to the Act becoming law, Shortall says businesses are well-versed in what is required. Now those businesses need someone who can offer practical advice and counsel on workable, sensible solutions that can be implemented today.

"Let's keep in mind that health and safety at work isn't just about legislation and liability; it's about businesses being equipped with the tools and solutions to keep people healthy and safe at work, while allowing businesses to succeed and achieve their objectives."

After recently working with Lion's board and senior leadership in Australia and New Zealand, John O'Rourke says for businesses large and small, what's important is that the right people are thinking hard about what might go wrong and what can be done to mitigate that risk, and to keep people safe.

"While most PCBUs (Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking) are very serious about the Act, there may be some who will have a shock coming," he says. "One of the biggest potential trip-ups is small companies (PCBUs) that don't take their health and safety responsibilities seriously, because other businesses simply won't contract them to do work.

"Small businesses that take the Act seriously and provide assurance will be the ones getting the work, as businesses won't want to take the risk of engaging people who are not demonstrating their commitment to health and safety.

"Small businesses can't present large businesses with a generic safety plan; rather, it needs to be well thought-out and specific to the particular tasks in that unique environment. Proving that any contractors have received the right training and are experienced and equipped to manage risks is a must-have for businesses."

O'Rourke says a focus for businesses should be systems and processes that facilitate and promote sharing information relevant to health and safety issues.

"There are several practical steps businesses can take right now to ensure they are on top of the changes, including getting a health and safety check-up and audit, compliance health checks at board and senior leadership level, and strategy development. The goal should be for health and safety culture, leadership, training, recording, and reporting to be embedded deep within all levels of the business.

"We need to foster a just culture, where employees, officers and directors won't be criticised or intimidated for reporting and asking about health and safety problems or incidents at work. Not knowing, or not asking about these issues will no longer suffice as an excuse for inaction. In fact, it could lead to liability."

Research proves that organsations with strong safety cultures have reduced health and safety incidents. For New Zealand, that presents something of a challenge: Shortall says, "The issue is that New Zealand tends to have quite a laid back, 'she'll be right' attitude so we need to commit to making changes and fostering workplace cultures that elevate the importance of health and safety matters and where co-workers look out for, and up to, each other.

"In addition, while it's tempting to focus culture change on safety because of the high profile nature of workplace incidents and fatalities, we should also expect to see the health element of the equation gain prominence."

With more than 20 years of health and safety experience in Australia and New Zealand, O'Rourke says he is surprised and a little concerned that the role of leadership isn't being given more focus in this country.

"It's positive to see widespread acknowledgement of the role culture plays in creating safer workplaces, and we can't let that useful dialogue dissipate. However, I do find it surprising that the results of a recent survey of the Business Leaders H&S Forum by Deloitte placed leadership quite far down the list of health and safety issues.

"There seems to be a disconnect if we believe we can influence culture without demonstrating leadership. It may be true that culture has the greatest influence on the success of health and safety reform, but the role and influence of leaders within businesses cannot be under estimated."

O'Rourke says that having the CEO deliver health and safety messages to governance, leadership and employee groups signals their importance.

"All too often, if there's a health and safety director in the room, everyone will defer to them. I would contend that it should be the CEO's role to deliver those messages; it's your people, your culture, your company, so take a stand and be heard when it comes to promoting health and safety as a top priority.

"In a top-down culture, the oft-mentioned adage of 'What interests my boss, fascinates me' takes on a new meaning. If site managers and foremen know their manager is likely to be asking about health and safety ... then they are more motivated to equip themselves to answer."

And leadership shouldn't stop at the CEO's desk. O'Rourke and Shortall emphasise that, at the board level, health and safety issues can never be "tick and flick" line items.

O'Rourke says, "Health and safety reporting, which should include both lead and lag indicators, needs to be ingrained into board and executive meetings, with an emphasis on identifying proactive opportunities to enhance safety and manage critical risks.

"If you aren't being proactive in the new health and safety environment, you leave yourself open to numerous liabilities. Just look at the more aggressive stance the regulator is taking, and the far higher fines and penalties, and you will soon appreciate the impact of a more rigorous health and safety landscape."

Shortall says another key focus for the governance community is an awareness of how to appropriately govern in light of the new requirements which give directors a positive duty to exercise due diligence as health and safety officers, without overstepping the mark into management.

Most large organisations know the "why" of health and safety, O'Rourke has found, but struggle with the "how".

He says at least one health and safety question has a crystal clear answer: "We need a culture where leaders step up and lead, where employees are equipped and empowered to suggest changes, and most importantly, we need a culture where each and every one of us take personal responsibility to ensure we are safe and healthy whenever and wherever we perform work."

 Stacey Shortall.
Stacey Shortall.

Stacey Shortall

, a partner at MinterEllisonRuddWatts, provides company directors with in-house counsel and health & safety teams with strategic and incident-specific advice. She had prominent roles in the Department of Labour investigation and Royal Commission inquiry which followed the 2010 Pike River tragedy.

John O'Rourke.
John O'Rourke.

John O'Rourke

, health and safety consultant at MinterEllisonRuddWatts, helps boards and senior leadership teams drive best practice in health and safety governance, understand their significant risks and hazards and help develop a reporting regime to meet the new due diligence requirements.