Health and Safety system: “not fit for purpose”

Byron Clark

“Not fit for purpose.” That was the verdict on New Zealand’s health and safety system that the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety delivered to Labour Minister Simon Bridges at the end of April. The taskforce discovered a number of “significant weaknesses” in laws, rules and regulations which were behind the country’s poor record of deaths and injuries at work.

New Zealand has an accident rate about 20-25% higher than Australia or the UK. Among the recommendations of the taskforce are creating a new, stand-alone, well-resourced health and safety agency and enacting a new health and safety act to overhaul the one enacted in 1993, as well as changes to many other related laws.

The report mentions “poor worker engagement” on health and safety issues and advocates better worker-participation and greater protection for those who raise concerns about issues in their workplaces. This is at odds with legislation such as the 90-day trial period and other recent reforms which have given workers less protection. The taskforce itself hardly set an example for worker representation either- just one of its six members came from the labour movement, the other five from business.

The majority of workplace injuries occur in just five industries – manufacturing, construction, agriculture, forestry and fishing. Mining was also highlighted by the taskforce, with Chairman Rob Jager noting the explosion at the Pike River mine, which resulted in the deaths of twenty nine people, as an example of a “significant failure” in New Zealand’s health and safety regime.

Certain groups are more likely to be injured in the workplace than others. As might be expected, youth and workers with low literacy and numeracy skills are disproportionately at risk, as are Maori and Pacific Islanders, who often fall in the previous categories due to a young population and comparatively worse educational outcomes than Pakeha.

If the proposed changes are legislated, workers will likely come out better off,  with an estimated twenty-fiver per cent reduction in workplace injuries. However, legislation will not necessarily be followed in every workplace, and the ones that don’t comply are likely to be the deunionised firms and industries that employ the marginalised workers who are currently most likely to be injured on the job.

The best protections for workers of course will not be top-down from government but bottom up from organised workers on the ‘shop floor’. Health and safety remains one of the few areas workers can legally strike over outside a contract negotiation. Ultimately of course, the wellbeing of working people needs to be prioritised higher than profit.

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Comments

  1. bazzaroo says:

    I wonder to what extent ‘deregulation’ has had on ‘Health and Safety’? Let’s face it, corporate deregulation can never, can’t ever, will never work!

  2. deregulation is not the problem it is the power imbalance between worker and company and the income loss between job and no job.

    If there was no unemployment a worker could quit an unsafe job and move to one where conditions were good and the unsafe employer would have no employees and no business. The state uses regulation and it’s power to maintain a power imbalance. The state uses regulations around welfare to impoverish workers and maintain a group of unemployed to create job demand no employee demand.

    You want more regulation around safety and it will just turn into more restrictions on workers more drug tests and more control by the state and employers.

    more regulation is not needed

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