The report of the royal commission into the Pike River mining tragedy should have been the turning point for workplace safety in this country. It found a culture of risk aided and abetted by employers, workers and successive governments not taking health and safety seriously enough. That point was underlined by an independent taskforce which concluded it was twice as dangerous to work in New Zealand as Australia and nearly four times as risky as working in Britain. Rectifying that state of affairs should have been a matter of urgency. But this has not happened, and serious accidents remain far too commonplace.
The latest, at a north Canterbury limestone quarry, appears to bear many of the hallmarks of a high-risk environment. The digger driver buried under a 1000-tonne landslide was operating his machine under an overhanging cliff face. It was the country's third serious quarry incident this year, a fact that, inevitably, draws attention to safety in the sector. It also invites a reconsideration of the Government's decision to exclude quarrying from the strengthened mining safety law introduced after Pike River. Originally, quarrying was to come under this umbrella, an acknowledgment that it, too, often involves highly dangerous work. But after lobbying from the industry, quarrying was excluded.
The deaths this year leave the Government with egg on its face. They suggest that the more stringent approach was the right one. They also highlight the slow rate of progress in remedying the country's workplace health and safety law. Pike River occurred in 2010, and two years later the commission declared that this time, the lessons must not be forgotten. Yet the latest development has been a two-month delay in returning the Health and Safety Reform Bill to Parliament from the transport and industrial relations select committee because of disagreements between National MPs.
At issue is whether businesses with fewer than 20 staff should be exempted from parts of the legislation. Specifically, there has been strong lobbying against all workplaces being required to have a health and safety representative. That figure is part of the Working Safer regime's general duty to involve and consult workers on health and safety matters. It is difficult to see why all businesses should not have a representative. Don't most share at least some characteristics that contributed to the Pike River tragedy - lax management attitudes, inexperience, and a pressure to deliver that could encourage work in hazardous conditions?
The Government's view has been that systemic failings in health and safety are common across all industries. In that case, the change must be both major and thoroughgoing. Lives are at stake and the Prime Minister is on thin ice in arguing the Government is simply trying to ensure the new law is not too hard or expensive to follow. Any further dilution of the recommendations of the commission means every subsequent workplace death will surely come back to haunt it. The latest incident in north Canterbury serves as a timely reminder of that.