Editorial: Health and safety must be core ethos

Affco NZ has faced scrutiny over an accident in which a meat hook penetrated a staff member's head. Photo / David Kerr
Affco NZ has faced scrutiny over an accident in which a meat hook penetrated a staff member's head. Photo / David Kerr

People should be able to come home at the end of their working day. In New Zealand, that is less sure than in Australia or the United Kingdom.

The reasons for our high rate of workplace accidents are many, and the symptoms were masked until the Pike River tragedy in 2010 forced a critical examination of health and safety in New Zealand's workplaces.

We lose 75 people a year to workplace injury and 15 times that number to workplace-related diseases or illness. Our death and injury rates are much higher than those in Australia and in the United Kingdom. These dire statistics are behind the new health and safety law which came into force this month. In essence it means "she'll be right" is no longer okay.

The thrust of the law is that everybody in a business "owns" responsibility for health and safety, and it is the job of the business to ensure that responsibility is shared.

The statistics were worst in agriculture, construction, forestry and manufacturing - a sector which includes meat workers. Affco NZ has faced scrutiny over an accident in which a meat hook penetrated a staff member's head. The company's health and safety manuals had detailed procedures which included turning off the chain and stopping the meat hooks during cleaning. The manual was not followed and cleaner Jason Matahiki suffered.

The required safety systems might well have been in place, as the judge pointed out, but there remained a question as to whether a health and safety ethos was engrained in the plant.

Worksafe NZ statistics show marginal shifts in workplace injuries at Affco NZ. The company says this represents a reduction because it has increased employee numbers and production. But consider Silver Fern Farms. It made health and safety a central focus a few years ago with its "Ora" programme. Since then, non-severe injuries are down 48 per cent while severe injuries fell by 61 per cent.

The company's drive towards "zero harm" was first of its four strategic goals for the 2014-2015 year. It achieved this at its Mossburn plant. The chief executive and chairman's address in the 2015 annual report recounts health and safety accomplishments before discussing the progress of the business.

Silver Fern Farms adopted a mantra - "Mates keeping mates safe". It formed the "runanga committee" including staff, union, management and directors to manage health and safety across the business. In jobs advertised by Silver Fern Farms, health and safety is the first - and most prominent - of "key accountabilities" listed for positions throughout the company.

The company's changes mirror many of those brought in by the new law. It is less about assigning one person to find dangerous parts of a business operation than it is about building an ethos which is core business.

It's not simply about having manuals. It's using the information in them to make work safer. It might prompt a culture change for New Zealand. If safety is no longer regarded as a concern of officials and fusspots, but rather part of routine practice, many more New Zealanders will come home at the end of a working day safe and well.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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