Law casts doubt on playground fun

By Kaysha Brownlie

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DESIGNED FOR BOYS: James Porima (left), Max Knobloch, Louis Sherwood, Archie Knight, and headmaster Steve Fiet, of Hereworth School in Havelock North. PHOTO/Paul Taylor.
DESIGNED FOR BOYS: James Porima (left), Max Knobloch, Louis Sherwood, Archie Knight, and headmaster Steve Fiet, of Hereworth School in Havelock North. PHOTO/Paul Taylor.

While all schools have been reviewing their systems ahead of the new Health and Safety At Work Act, one headmaster says what they will not be doing is stopping "boys from being boys".

The legislation came from a Health and Safety Reform Bill, part of "Working Safer: a Blueprint for Health and Safety at Work" framework which aims to reduce New Zealand's workplace injury and death toll by 25 per cent by 2020.

Under the new Act, those with significant management influence in a workplace, including principals, may be subject to prosecution and a fine of up to $600,000 and five years in jail if they fail to meet the duty of due diligence.

The Act has cast a spotlight on some childhood favourites, like climbing trees, as well as day-to-day necessities like climbing ladders to clean drains.

Some New Zealand schools have reportedly banned tree-climbing and purchased scissor lifts in place of ladders in the wake of tightened laws.

Hereworth School's headmaster Steve Fiet said they had always been safety conscious and it was just about making sure people were aware of the changes.

School camps had also come into the firing line but Mr Fiet said external providers that ran Hereworth's school camps were highly qualified.

And when it came to climbing trees, he said boys would still be able to climb them at Hereworth.

He said reasonable measures would be taken to reduce risks by removing broken and/or dead branches, and expert arborists assessed the trees annually.

"What we will not be doing is stopping boys from being boys."

The former Hawke's Bay Primary Principals' Association president and Te Mata School principal Michael Bain said despite some "scaremongering", the buck now stopped with principals when it came to safety.

Mr Bain, who gave up his presidential post on Friday, said schools were reviewing everything in the wake of the new legislation. A number of seminars addressing the changes had been run with the most recent on Friday.

Schools have had to enforce safety for a number of years and Mr Bain said the new legislation simply placed more emphasis on this. He said there had been some "scaremongering" but was aware he would now be personally liable for any incidents.

"There's a whole new liability for principals. The buck stops with us."

In terms of playground fun, Mr Bain said: "Climbing trees [was] not encouraged."

Flaxmere Primary School principal Robyn Isaacson took over presidency of the association on Friday, and said the legislation was about working together.

There are new safety guidelines around the way ladders are used and Miss Isaacson said that in terms of caretakers climbing up ladders to clean drains, it was something that would still need to happen.

She said if the right amount of care and due diligence was applied then safety would continue to be paramount.

Tukituki MP Craig Foss said the rules "would absolutely not stop school children from climbing trees".

Schools with sensible health and safety policies had nothing to worry about, he said.

"Taking small risks, like climbing trees, is all part of childhood - it's how our kids learn and develop into strong, confident adults.

"I fully encourage every school to allow its pupils to enjoy the stunning outdoor opportunities across Hawke's Bay."

Iona College principal Shannon Warren said they had been preparing for the new legislation for over a year now.

She said the focus would still be on managing risk as far as was reasonably practicable in order to meet responsibilities.

"Consultants are certainly queuing up to offer their services but I think the most important thing for boards of trustees and principals is not to be caught up in scaremongering and myths which can distract from the realities of [the Act] and the constructive ways that people can improve health and safety at work."

WorkSafe NZ communications general manager John Tulloch said it was about the interpretation and the application of the law as to how different workplaces responded.

"The important thing to remember is this is a framework to help make health and safety clear for who does what."

He said schools were at the lower end of the scale and with the right systems they would be well on their way, if not there already, in terms of meeting the requirements.

"So really it's a case of being aware of duties and who's got those duties."

There would always be bumps and bruises in everyday life which could not be avoided, he said, and this law was not about zero risk.

On a school board of trustees himself, Mr Tulloch said what the law would change was the greater support they gave to principals. "That's a positive."

Looking at Hawke's Bay, the WorkSafe spokesman said in 2011 there was as many as one workplace fatality every four months, and more than five serious workplace injuries reported per week.

But he said there were industries where injuries were more likely and the legislation was a framework with "flexibility".

It wouldn't create risks but instead "clarify" the law, Mr Tulloch said.

"It's about keeping our eye on the ball."

- Hawkes Bay Today

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