The timing (just before Christmas) meant that Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Iain Lees-Galloway's announcement of a new health and safety strategy garnered little attention.
The strategy sets out a direction for New Zealand's workplace health and safety over the next 10 years — developed by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment, WorkSafe New Zealand and a range of stakeholders.
The next step will be to turn the strategy's vision into action, with the minister anticipating that government agencies will align their health and safety-related work with the strategy.
"I also encourage sectors, businesses and communities to do the same," he said.
Its development flows on from the recommendations of the Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety that reviewed NZ's system in response to the Pike River tragedy in 2010.
"We have made significant progress in reducing work-related harm since the Pike River tragedy but it is clear there is much more we can and must do," said Lees-Galloway.
"There are still 50-60 deaths from work injuries each year and 600-900 deaths from exposures to health risks associated with their work. This is unacceptably high and the pace of progress has stalled.
"New Zealand can be among the world-leaders for workplace health and safety if we can get our attitudes and practices right."
Greg Dearsly, managing director of the New Zealand Institute of Safety, says the strategy is good news for workers and provides a solid foundation to improve workplace safety.
He also welcomes the strategy's emphasis on mental health, "the mental wellbeing of employees in a workplace is a significant matter that any business should be including in their HR and Health and Safety management", he says.
"We heard Jacinda Ardern talk at the World Economic Forum about the moral and economic issues created by mental ill health and the impact it can have on productivity. Globally it is set to be the biggest risk issue facing organisations now and into the future.
"How a business understands this complex matter is not easy, but at a very basic level it's about treating people with respect and kindness, so it goes to the heart of an organisation's culture and the challenges related to building and strengthening this," Dearsly says.
New Zealand, which had 42 work deaths recorded last year, is in the bottom quartile of OECD comparative countries. Dearsly says that figure doesn't take into account those who die prematurely due to work-related health exposures — estimated at between 600 and 900 each year in NZ — or those who die on our roads while working.
"New Zealand had a terrible road toll in 2018 and up to a third of that toll could have been accidents that killed people who were working at the time. Organisations really need to focus on identifying their areas of 'Critical Risk' and manage those — driving is one risk that exists in most businesses.
"The strategy talks about focusing on the areas that will make the biggest impact; understanding your organisation's critical risks is the first step to managing them better. For many high-risk businesses, it is likely to include things like plant and machinery, mobile plant and hazardous manual tasks."
Dearsly points out that our ageing workforce also presents challenges.
"It's estimated that about 21 per cent of New Zealand's working population will be aged 65+ by 2038, up from 15 per cent in 2017.
"Employers need to understand the changing nature of work, we are no longer living in a world of 9 to 5 and retire at 65, we have a shrinking birth rate and people are working longer.
"That means more work has to be designed with the ageing population in mind. Flexible working arrangements is an achievable outcome in today's connected world "