Is it going to take the words of a dying unionist to shame John Key into pushing through long-overdue health and safety reforms in the New Zealand workplace?

Or the unfortunate death of the driver who was buried in a mountain of rubble when his quarry collapsed?

Or yet another avoidable quad bike death in New Zealand's rural heartland, where a few - but hardly all - farmers are chaffing at having to ensure safer working conditions.

Hark back to December 2010, when many dignitaries led by Key gathered in Greymouth for a solemn memorial service for 29 miners who were killed by a mine explosion.

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Then reflect on the subsequent decision by government officials to withdraw charges against the former mines boss laid under the existing Health and Safety Act. And the $110,000 voluntary reparation pay that Peter Whitall instead offered.

It's outrageous that nearly five years after the Pike River coal mine disaster the Key Government is still tarrying at implementing legislation that should have been rammed through Parliament months ago.

Nervous Government backbenchers are said to have rebelled after pressure from small business constituents and farmers. Well, so what?

A Royal Commission drew telling lessons from this disaster. The mine owners were rightly castigated for their shameful standards. This should be reason alone for the Prime Minister to demonstrate leadership.

Key could just show some spine. Face down his malcontents. And get in place the reforms on which the senior business and senior union leadership in this country are united.

On TVNZ's Q&A last Sunday, Helen Kelly leveraged the keen media interest in interviewing her after her diagnosis with invasive lung cancer to spotlight the dreadful complacency the Key Government has displayed on this vital issue. Kelly made the point that in Australia the workplace health and safety accident rate is half that of New Zealand's.

The Council of Trade Unions president reiterated that both the Pike River commission and a government taskforce had recommended legislation which would require small businesses to nominate safety representatives. As Kelly said: "There are hundreds of small businesses operating in and out of Pike River and many of the workers killed in Pike River were working for small businesses.

"So this idea that workers are a burden, that investing in them, that giving them rights in health and safety, is a problem rather than a benefit is a very negative one.

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"Many, many accidents happen in small businesses. Our most dangerous industries - construction, forestry, farming - they would benefit from strong worker participation."

Down at Fieldays, a pilot from the Westpac Rescue Helicopter service recounted one-third of their callouts were for accidents or health scares in rural New Zealand.

Farmers present at the breakfast where the pilot spoke appreciated their "heroism". There was an appreciation that accidents do happen on farms.

But there was also an appreciation of the necessity of ensuring high safety standards. What the Westpac pilots had to confront was not pretty.

"Big business" at times gets a bad rap from the CTU leadership. And Kelly's (occasional) obduracy does at times infuriate business people. But it's notable that the Business Leaders' Health and Safety forum - which Key launched in 2010 - also wants the reforms passed. And passed quickly.

Leaders from Shell, Fletcher Building, P F Olson, ACC and Aecom are among the heads of more than 100 significant companies that belong to the forum. Their vision is that all business leaders passionately commit to achieving "Zero Harm" workplaces, instead of lobbying National MPs to whittle away (pun intended) the protections.

With backing from both big business and the big unions, the Prime Minister's hand is a strong one.

Kelly's voice of conscience on this issue is strong. She has said she will continue to speak out on issues to try and better the working lives of New Zealanders for as long as she is physically capable.

For most of her career at the top of the CTU leadership, Kelly has also had the active support of another strong and sensitive union leader.

This week, Peter Conway, both former secretary and economist at the CTU, died after a 12-month struggle with a depressive illness.

Conway was much admired by the union sector and business lobbyists who he often worked with.

His was often a voice of reason as he sought a middle path to constructively reconcile opposing viewpoints in the nation's interests.

The CTU leadership will go through a transition later this year. The Key Government shouldn't require shaming to do the right thing. But for as long as she can, Kelly should keep on "telling it like it is" - future generations will thank her for it.