The fun police were out in force this week. With changes to work and safety laws this month, some school principals were taking a better-safe-than-sorry approach.

The head of Greytown Primary School Kevin Mackay sent home a newsletter saying until there was certainty about the school's liability, children were forbidden to climb the trees in the school grounds.

The Health and Safety at Work Act was introduced in response to the Pike River mine disaster and, although the aim is to keep vigilant about workers' safety, the act also covers community agencies and charity events.

In effect, that could make principals liable for fines of up to $600,000 should a child or teacher get injured on their watch.


The potential for fines isn't new - under existing legislation, principals can be fined up to $500,000 or face a jail term for up to two years. But according to Mackay, the new wording is vague and open to interpretation. He was concerned about the requirement for schools to do everything "reasonably practical".

What would that mean to a parent whose child was injured in a fall and what would it mean to Worksafe, the Government body that polices the health and safety laws?

However the chief executive of Worksafe, Gordon McDonald, says the sky won't fall in with the introduction of the new laws tomorrow.

The law has long required schools to manage risks but no principal has ever been prosecuted after a child fell out of a tree.

So if kids at the local school have always climbed the trees in their playground they can keep doing so.

McDonald says what might be reasonable to expect is that dead or rotting branches should be removed and children be prevented from climbing on branches over public roads. What is different, he says, is a duty of due diligence placed on principals and school boards to ensure proper, well-resourced processes are in place.

Where a school is co-ordinating with an external organisation - a rock-climbing operator, say - someone from the school must be responsible for liaising and ensuring the best person is managing risks.

McDonald and the Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety, Michael Woodhouse, point the finger at profiteering health and safety consultants who, the minister says, are scaremongering to get work.

Schools don't feature highly in workplace fatalities - the agricultural sector has by far the highest rate of any industry.

It's admirable the Government wants to keep workers safe. The new legislation means Worksafe is more likely to prosecute negligent employers.

The good news is employees will be expected to take responsibility for their own well-being. I was appalled when young apprentices told me they refused to wear the safety gear bosses provided because it was uncomfortable.

I feel for employers trying to do the right thing. One woman with more than 400 employees says rustling up sufficient staff to participate in health and safety committees had become her full-time job.

In the meantime, children are being told to keep climbing trees. And if they fall, it's a lesson on how to do it better next time. According to friends' children, it's a badge of honour to have your arm in a cast, not a reason to sue.

Kerre McIvor is on Newstalk ZB, weekdays, noon-4pm