In more than 30 years working in health and safety I've seen more workplace accidents than I care to remember. They all had one thing in common " no one wanted them to happen.

No one wants to see a worker, colleague or friend hurt. No boss wants to have to tell a family member that their loved one is in hospital or worse still, won't be coming home ever again.

As chief executive of Downer New Zealand Cos Bruyn puts it, there's a real cost to families when someone is badly hurt at work; a cost that can linger and even break families up. He says above all else, Downer wants to avoid that.

I think we can all agree with this. We want to see workers go home safe and healthy at the end of the day.


That's what the new Health and Safety at Work Act, which came into force this week, is about.

Of course any change " particularly one that applies to every business and every workplace " is going to create some uncertainty and apprehension. That's only human nature. But I believe businesses and workers should welcome the new law and treat it as an opportunity to work better, safer and smarter.

The new act makes health and safety everyone's responsibility, but recognises that a business and its senior leaders will have more influence and control over this than its workers. It's an evolution of the 1992 law and just like its predecessor it requires businesses to identify risks and do what is sensible and proportionate to eliminate or manage them.

That doesn't mean you have to eliminate all risks at any cost " risk is part of life and part of business. But you can't just sit back and hope 'she'll be right' either, particularly for those risks with serious consequences.

So you don't need to take down the coat hooks in the bowling club - yes, someone actually did this - for fear that someone will somehow trip and impale themselves on them, but a contractor will have to think about how to keep people safe while their digger is tearing up the old bowling green so that new drainage can be installed.

The new law has a real focus on encouraging communication and co-operation and includes a new requirement for all businesses to engage with workers on health and safety matters. It doesn't set in stone what form that engagement must take. That will vary from industry to industry and workplace to workplace.

As well as asking workers for feedback on matters that could affect their health and safety, all businesses need to have clear, well known ways for their workers to participate in improving health and safety on an ongoing basis. Many construction companies, for example, start the day with a toolbox talk to get everyone involved in discussing health and safety, spotting issues and suggesting solutions.

Even setting aside the law, engagement makes good business sense. Having a fully engaged workforce can also lift productivity and reduce staff turnover.

The trick is to make sure health and safety is integrated into your business at every level. Keeping an eye out for one another and speaking out if something doesn't look right should be part of everyone's routine. If it's not already then now is the time to take action. Not only will our workers be safer and healthier, our businesses will be one more step on the road to excellence.

A growing range of advice and information from formal Approved Codes of Practice to fact sheets and online tools is being rolled out to support businesses and workers to improve their health and safety performance.

For more information visit

Gordon MacDonald is chief executive of WorkSafe New Zealand.
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