Stronger penalties for workplace health and safety offences are being welcomed but "don't bring workers back to life", a Hawke's Bay union representative says.

Engineering, Printing and Manufacturing Union lead organiser for the central North Island Wayne Ruscoe said stronger penalties announced yesterday were a significant improvement on current health and safety legislation.

"It makes it as clear as possible to employers that they are responsible for the health and safety of their workers and punitive measures will be taken if they don't take their responsibilities seriously."

His comments follow yesterday's announcement of major health and safety reforms stemming from the Pike River disaster, unveiled by Labour Minister Simon Bridges.


The Government's new Working Safer reform package would introduce stronger penalties and court powers for health and safety offences, but do not introduce a corporate manslaughter charge.

Workplace accidents in Hawke's Bay sparked 283 serious harm notifications to the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment in 2012.

Nationally 40 workers were killed on the job last year, including three in Hawke's Bay.

In November last year, Porangahau farmer Lance Renall lay dead for more than an hour on his 565ha sheep and beef farm before his wife discovered his body underneath the quad bike. The 64-year-old was out gathering firewood when the quad bike tipped and crushed him.

And in May this year, Hastings man Jeffrey McCulloch, 53, died after being struck in the head by a steel beam during reinforcement work on the old Farmers building site in Napier.

Mr McCulloch, a father of two, stepfather and grandfather, had been a foreman with Patton Engineering.

Mr Ruscoe said he remained supportive of a corporate manslaughter charge being introduced.

"Where there's clear irresponsibility there should be criminal proceedings following."

The Hawke's Bay forestry industry in particular needed health and safety improvements, he said.

"They're a fairly substantial and big contributor to the local economy but they kill workers.

"In forestry there's a lot of passing the buck."

Under the reforms, a person who engages in reckless conduct putting a worker at risk of injury or death would face a maximum penalty of $600,000 or five years' imprisonment, or both, or $3 million for a company.

At present, the penalties for this offence are $500,000 or two years' imprisonment, or both.

Judges would be given power to make "adverse publicity orders" for individuals or companies which broke the law.

The package was a response to the recommendations of an independent taskforce on workplace health and safety, which followed the deaths of 29 men in the 2010 Pike River coal mine disaster.

Commenting on the reforms, Mr Bridges said: "This is the legacy we owe to the Pike River families, the families of the 75 people who are killed each year in New Zealand workplaces, and the estimated 600 to 900 who die annually from the long-term effects of occupational disease."

The reforms included a new regulator, Worksafe New Zealand, which would target high-risk sectors where the most workplace injuries and fatalities occurred.

The reforms were welcomed by business and unions.

Business New Zealand head Phil O'Reilly said it was a significant step in the right direction.

Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly welcomed proposals to include workers more in health and safety discussions and to strengthen the roles of health and safety representatives.

By the numbers

  • 283 Hawke's Bay serious harm notifications in 2012

  • 3 Hawke's Bay workplace fatalities

  • 40 national workplace fatalities

Source: MBIE