NZ workplace safety a 'national disgrace' - consultant

By Ben Chapman-Smith

A miner laying down flowers at the White Knight Bridge near the entrance to the Pike River mine. Photo / AP
A miner laying down flowers at the White Knight Bridge near the entrance to the Pike River mine. Photo / AP

New Zealand's health and safety record has been labelled as 'woeful' and a 'national disgrace' by a consultant with two decades' experience in the sector.

In the wake of the Pike River Mine disaster, the government last year set up the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety to carry out the first wide-ranging review of the system in two decades.

In a submission to the Taskforce, Robyn Levinge says New Zealand has never prioritised health and safety like it has with road safety, domestic violence and drink driving.

"The fact that there has been no legislative review of the Health and Safety in Employment Act since its introduction in 1992 is illustrative of why Kiwis continue to be killed and injured at work," says the owner of Auckland-based consultancy Optime.

"As a country, we have simply not given health and safety the priority it deserves at any level."

Levinge worked overseas for 12 years as a health and safety specialist for global corporates before returning to New Zealand in 2004.

She was shocked to find legislation here had failed to keep pace with international best practice and changes in kiwi work practices.

"The health and safety sector and industry in New Zealand has suffered from too much talk and no action," she says.

"By contrast, in Australia and the UK, continual change and improvement in the framework and implementation is being lead from the industry sector."

More than 100 people die from workplaces accidents in New Zealand every year. As well as the emotional toll on families and communities, the economic and social cost of work related injuries is about $3.5 billion dollars.

Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson said in June that New Zealand's workplace death and injury rates are not improving.

"The Government is serious about taking action as it's unacceptable that so many New Zealanders are being killed or seriously injured at work," she said.

Almost a decade since returning to her homeland, Levinge says the Pike River disaster showed there had been little progress in addressing issues that continue to result in injury and death in the workplace.

One of the biggest problems is the lack of focus on small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), she says.

There is no robust data showing how many accidents and injuries are occurring within small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), partly because it is so hard to keep track of them all.

"We are simply not aware of the extent of the problem. The data we do have is so bad....what we don't know is probably ten times scarier."

The need for change and for the various bodies to start "doing, not just talking" is urgent, she says.

New Zealand's health and safety framework needs to become easier and more streamlined for businesses to follow, with a simplified process for assessing hazards and risks.

"The current process for SMEs in particular appears too complicated and is not globally aligned."

Business leaders at every level must start taking ownership of health and safety in their workplaces, she adds.

"Businesses must actively work on health and safety on a daily basis, not avoid it until the DOL or ACC pays a visit."

There needs to be proper guidance, support and advice available to help businesses implement and manage systems.

The independent taskforce's call for submissions last year was met with more than 400 responses, which are now being assessed.

A final report will be presented to government by the end of April, which will provide recommendations on ways to reduce the rate of fatalities and serious injuries in the workplace by at least 25 percent by 2020.

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