Health and safety expert Terry Johnson says New Zealand companies are finally beginning to divest themselves of "hole in the carpet" thinking about workplace safety.

Johnson, Simpson Grierson's director of their Health and Safety Advisory Services, told the company's Insights seminar that, nearly a year on from the new health & safety legislation, there was much improved understanding of the requirements of companies.

"As a country we are in a much better position than before Pike River," he said. "There is more understanding of the key parts of the new legislation and directors, partners and those at senior levels in companies are starting to ask the right questions of their organisations."

But Johnson also says there are "gaps to be filled" before New Zealand companies can rest easy about workplace safety.


The Health and Safety At Work Act came into force last year after the country's poor workplace safety record (60 killed at work annually; 4900 seriously harmed; and over a million injured - twice the incidence of Australia and six times worse than Britain).

The government's aim is to reduce the figures by at least 25 per cent by 2020; hefty potential penalties have been prescribed to back it up - up to $600,000 in fines and up to five years in jail (or both) for what the act calls an "officer" if found guilty of reckless conduct that exposes an individual to serious injury, illness or death while a worker faces $300,000 in fines and five years jail (or both) for the same thing.

A person conducting a business or undertaking (PCBU) can face a fine of up to $3m for the same thing while failure to comply with a duty that causes serious injury, illness or death can bring fines of up to $300,000 (for officers), $150,000 (for workers) or $1.5m for a PCBU.

An officer can be a director, partner or board member as can the broad definition of a PCBU. The new law has taken workplace health and safety in many organisations from a generally low-level, operational area of the company and placed it squarely on the boardroom table and those who run the business.

So directors, or anyone operating in a role akin to a director, plus those in a position to influence safety are affected - and a breach of the Act can potentially occur even if an accident or incident hasn't taken place.

Johnson said many New Zealand companies were still trying to decipher the roles of "officers", with many deciding the entire leadership team were officers.

"What is really interesting is that we are not hearing business leaders and organisations talking about their policy and what it commits them to in terms of their health & safety desires and philosophies," he says.

"They can tell you what the legal requirements are but this legislation seems to reach deeper than that, asking the people who head companies to exercise significant influence over the management of the operation and to carry out due diligence to ensure key health and safety risks are well managed."

Johnson says many are still subject to what he calls the "hole in the carpet" or the "beware of the stairs" thinking - with many New Zealand businesses and leaders still of the mind that repairing the carpet people might trip on or reminding people stairs are dangerous is what is required.

"There needs to be more effort in really thinking about what they as business leaders want and whether that fits with what the new law is trying to achieve."

The new Act recognises that the way in which businesses and organisations are run may have impacts beyond their own staff - affecting customers, visitors, contractors and others under the health and safety umbrella of the organisations they are dealing with, requiring the company to manage the risk for all people the business comes into contact with.

Johnson says: "A lot of companies have a policy now but when you ask them what the policy says and how they deliver the intent, a lot of them smile and say, 'Probably this' - meaning the content and intent is not known or owned by the senior leaders in a lot of cases.

"Often policy is just window dressing to help feel like they are complying; the organisations at the top of their game make their H&S Policy align to their vision, beliefs and principles and therefore inform their day-to-day actions and activity.

"Many have policies and procedures laid down already but don't realise there are gaps in their system and that there is no one-size-fits-all health & safety template - with a framework appropriate for the amount of risk within the organisation needed."

Also at the seminar Samantha Turner, partner in Simpson Grierson's employment practice, traversed the health & safety fall-out from the tragic slaying of two women (and the shooting and injuring of two more) in Ashburton's WINZ office by a disgruntled client in 2014.

A hearing into health and safety responsibilities (held under the old legislation) saw the Ministry of Social Development told by a District Court judge they should have had barriers in place to protect staff from violent offenders - even though the court recognised the ministry had taken a lot of other measures to do so.

The case has led to changed thinking in health & safety in the public sector, particularly where staff face the public. Turner said managing risk now extended to monitoring trends like overseas studies suggesting that client-initiated violence was growing in areas where staff handled money or valuables, served disturbed people, those in inspection or enforcement professions, people who worked alone and clients asked to wait more than 20 minutes before being attended to.