'Significant weaknesses' in workplace health and safety

By Heather McCracken

A 25 per cent reduction in the rate of fatalities and serious workplace injuries by 2020 is being targeted. File photo / APN
A 25 per cent reduction in the rate of fatalities and serious workplace injuries by 2020 is being targeted. File photo / APN

An independent taskforce review of workplace health and safety in New Zealand has recommended sweeping changes, and said the current system has "significant weaknesses''.

The report presented to Minster of Labour Simon Bridges this morning said the taskforce was "deeply concerned'' about the heath and safety performance of New Zealand workplaces.

Taskforce chairman, Rob Jager said today the current system was "not fit for purpose''.

"We believe there is no single critical factor that can account for New Zealand's high rate of serious injuries and fatalities suffered at work.

"Rather, we believe that our workplace health and safety system has a number of significant weaknesses across the full range of system components that need to be addressed if we are to achieve a major step-change in performance.''

Some of the 12 major weaknesses identified included confusing regulation, a weak regulator, poor worker engagement, and inadequate leadership.

The report also noted there was no comprehensive or reliable data set for monitoring workplace fatal injury rates, and said the lack of data left the taskforce with a "profound sense of unease''.

The report said five industries - manufacturing, construction, agriculture, forestry and fishing - accounted for more than half of workplace injury claims.

Its recommendations included creating a new, stand-alone, well-resourced health and safety agency, enacting a new health and safety act, and changes to many other related laws.

Changes would include rewards for businesses with good performance and higher penalties for those with poor performance, including extending the manslaughter offence to corporations.

Mr Jager said if the reforms were implemented, a 25 per cent reduction in the rate of fatalities and serious workplace injuries by 2020 was realistic.

The Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety was established by the Labour Minister. It released a consultation document last year and has considered hundreds of submissions.

CTU President Helen Kelly said the report clearly supported the call for an urgent review of the forestry industry.

The industry was one of five sectors identified as being responsible for more than half of all workplace injury claims, along with manufacturing, construction, agriculture and fishing.

"One of the very good things the Government could do is have a look at those industries, and we'd say start with forestry.''

Labour Party labour spokeswoman Darien Fenton also backed calls for an inquiry into forestry, and said the Government should also withdraw its Employment Relations Amendment Bill.

"We have a government that's introducing labour law changes that will make it even harder for workers to have rights at work.''

Mr Bridges said the taskforce had confirmed a rethink of work health and safety practices was necessary.

"The Government has already accepted the Taskforce's early recommendation for a new stand-alone health and safety agency,'' he said.

"We will respond in detail to the rest of the recommendations by July.''

Families of Pike River mine victims say they will ensure that recommendations from the health and safety taskforce are acted on.

Spokesman Bernie Monk said many of the families had spoken at length with the taskforce, and supported its call for major reforms in workplace health and safety.

"One of the biggest things for the families' point of view is to make sure they actually happen,'' Mr Monk said.

"It's one of the legacies that the Pike River families want to leave. Our job is about to start now, to make sure they get put in place.''

Mr Monk said those responsible for workplace accidents needed to be held accountable, which had not happened following the Pike River tragedy.

"Everyone's sorry but no one's said it's their fault and no one's been held accountable for what happened down there in the mine,'' he said.

- APNZ

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