29.05.2015 : Chloe Stewart-Tyson

Why don't we 'do' health and safety in NZ?

New Zealand, you need to take pause and remember why this is important. Health and safety is an integral part of a successful business. It is not onerous when done properly. It is just good practice and morally the right thing to do.

I'm usually a supporter of Prime Minister John Key but in this instance I totally agree with the recent statements made by Helen Kelly, president of the Council of Trade Unions (CTU) about the delays to the Health and Safety Reform Bill. Helen expressed her concern about the impact of the Government's changes, "At the beginning of the review of health and safety (as a direct result of the tragedy at Pike River) the Government promised that our laws would take 'no steps backwards'. It seems the Government is intent on breaking that promise by creating these exemptions.

I am a health and safety professional. New Zealand has been my home for 15 years and for that duration, I have worked hard to get the companies that I have worked for to see the light and understand that health and safety is an integral part of a successful business.

We must all know in our heart of hearts that we don’t take health and safety seriously in this country. Not only do our fatality rates compared to other developed countries show this, but if you speak to the majority of people, they don't see it, they don't understand it and by in large they don't see it as being important.

It is only the bigger companies that ‘manage’ health and safety either because they are in an industry that dictates that they should; because they are in the Accident Compensation Corporation Workplace Safety Management Practices (ACC WSMP) or Partnership Programme that discounts their levies so there is monetary gain; or because they know it is the right thing to do. Even these larger companies have struggled over the years to get resource to manage health and safety.

I have heard many excuses as to why New Zealand does not ‘do’ health and safety. One being that because we have ACC, it means that no one is at fault and everyone will get paid anyway so why worry. Another is the Kiwi ‘number 8 wire approach’ to everything. We like to be innovative and therefore “she’ll be right.” Let’s not restrict what we do by having some sensible policies and procedures in place to assess and manage the risks.

The main excuse as highlighted in National's reason for not passing the current Health and Safety at Work Act is because of small businesses. Prime Minister John Key is quoted as saying “We want to make sure that on the one hand it lifts the health and safety requirements in the workplace so it is safer…” “But…. we also want to make sure it’s workable and it isn’t overly onerous on small business”.

This may be a very wide statement that may well have been reported out of context but what is evident is that the legislation has not been passed within the original timeframe of late 2014.

Regardless of whether this statement is directly relating to the part of the legislation concerning the employee numbers required to have a health and safety representative or not, I keep hearing the excuse that poor health and safety performance is due to New Zealand being a country comprising of 90% small to medium employers (SME) who don't need to implement health and safety systems or know about health and safety management.

It could be an interpretation that John Key’s statement means, we don’t want to make it onerous on small businesses, but if you have a large company and have been successful then tough – it will be onerous on you anyway. There should not be any double standards; the right to go home from work each day safe and sound applies whatever the size of the business.

Is this excuse valid? Yes, I am sure that ACC does not help in driving a culture of taking ownership. And ‘yes,’ I am sure there is a part of the New Zealand culture that believes in ‘”She’ll be right,” but they are for a different discussion.

What I want to highlight is the small business argument. Are we really the only country to have this amount of small businesses? Here is a comparison to the UK where I know for a fact there are thousands of small contractors/companies e.g. painters, electricians etc.

In the UK, at the start of 2014, there were 5.2 million businesses employing 25.2 million people. In New Zealand at the start of 2014, there were 487,880 enterprises employing approximately 2 million people. Quite a difference in numbers!

In the UK over 99% of businesses are small or medium sized businesses employing 0-249 people (the total employing 15.2 million people). Five million (96%) businesses are micro-businesses employing 0-9 people. Micro-businesses account for 33% of total employment. In New Zealand, 97% of enterprises are small or medium sized businesses employing 0-20 people (the total employing 584,000 people), making up 30% of employment. Self-employed one man businesses total over 386,000 people.

So, a high level summary suggests that the number of employing enterprises in New Zealand has not changed noticeably over the past decade, and the high proportion of all enterprises that are small businesses is similar to the pattern found in most OECD countries (this includes the UK, USA & Australia). So we can establish that we are no different from other countries in terms of the number of small to medium sized business that we have.

So what about the workplace fatality rates? Here we know that we are worse than other OECD countries but how do we compare with the UK to continue the line as above?

The provisional figure for the number of workers fatally injured in the UK in 2013/14 is 133. Rate of fatal injury: 0.44 deaths per 100,000 workers. In New Zealand, we totalled 57 worker fatalities in 2013 and 34 in 2014, an average of 46 over the two years. Rate of fatal injury: 2.3 deaths per 100,000 workers.

If New Zealand were the size of the UK, and employed the same amount of people as the UK, this rate would equate to over 500 occupational fatalities in NZ.

So what can we take from this overview? My interpretation is that the excuse that we don’t do health and safety well because of the percentage of small to medium sized businesses in New Zealand, is not valid. It is just another excuse, just like ACC cover and number 8 wire.

How can we possibly keep making excuses and justify these statistics? How can we say that we want to make some companies exempt from parts of the law? How can we possibly achieve the target of reducing workplace injuries and deaths by 25% by 2020 when we can’t even get consensus to pass a bill that strengthens the current Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992?

Consider this - Every delay by the government makes it a much more difficult target to achieve! Remember though that the proposed Health & Safety at Work Bill still comes nowhere near the strength of the Australian Work Health and Safety Act 2011 or the UK Health and Safety at Work Act 1974.

Let’s remember, 29 kiwis died, they were real people, they have families and friends who miss them terribly and grieve for them every day. So why, when we have a chance to make a difference about health and safety in this country are we now four years on, with no difference made, and all we are doing is “watering down” the proposed legislation to make rules for some but not others.

New Zealand, you need to take pause and remember why this is important. Health and safety is an integral part of a successful business. It is not onerous when done properly. It is just good practice and morally the right thing to do.

References:
http://www.fsb.org.uk/stats www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/sn06152.pdf http://www.mbie.govt.nz/what-we-do/business-growth-agenda/sectors-reports-series/pdf-document-library/the-small-business-sector-report-2014.pdf http://www.stats.govt.nz/browse_for_stats/businesses/business_characteristics/ BusinessDemographyStatistics_HOTPFeb14.aspx http://hstaskforce.govt.nz/documents/Consultation_document.pdf

About the Author

Chloe Stewart-Tyson

Health & Safety (& Environment) Manager - NZ

Chloe has 13 years' experience in health and safety, specialising in organisational culture change. With a background in nursing and human resources, she has a passion for keeping people safe. She’s been instrumental in establishing Beca’s health and safety culture and led the development and implementation of a range of internal initiatives, policies and procedures. Her current focus is on growing Beca’s health and safety consultancy services.

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Rachael · 30/05/2015 9:59:09 a.m.
Great article thanks Chloe. At times I'm at fault of thinking "she'll be right, what's all the fuss?" But your article highlighted some embarrassing and unacceptable statistics for NZ. I recently went for a job trial at Dimond Roofing a subsidiary of Fletcher Building and I was so impressed by the care and detail and time they put into my health and safety induction which was the first thing we went through in the day. It was nice to know that they had systems and they had thought it all through. You're right that it's probably more common in bigger companies, but it wouldn't be difficult to setup for any company.