Gordon MacDonald: Working safer together

Gordon Macdonald Chief Executive of Worksafe New Zealand


We all know that New Zealand doesn’t have a great workplace health and safety record. The numbers make grim reading – on average every week at least one person dies in a workplace incident. The toll from work-related ill health is even worse; a shocking 600-900 people a year are estimated to die early from work-related diseases.

IN THE CONSTRUCTION sector alone more than 26,000 workplace injuries occur each year – more than 3,000 of those are serious enough to require more than a week off work. That comes at a cost of $100 million dollars in ACC claims and millions more in lost productivity.

But health and safety is more than just a numbers game. What those numbers can never show is the human cost – they represent real people with friends and family. Reducing the workplace death and injury toll is WorkSafe’s overarching purpose. The Government has set the target of a 25 percent reduction in both fatal and serious harm incidents by 2020. It is an ambitious, but achievable goal.

Worksafe New Zealand
Worksafe New Zealand

One thing is for sure, WorkSafe will never change our workplace health and safety culture by itself. Real change will only come when everyone steps up – businesses, workers and the regulator.

That’s why in the second half of 2015 WorkSafe and the ACC invited industry leaders in both the construction and manufacturing sectors to talk about the next steps for health and safety. The idea was to tap into the expertise of industry leaders to help develop ACC and WorkSafe’s plans to help support the sectors to lift their health and safety performance.

The process worked like this – WorkSafe and ACC presented data on accident and ill-health rates across the sectors, and also the research we have done on how workers and their bosses think and feel about health and safety. The first question to the group was “do you recognise this picture?” But the stats, although useful, are only part of the picture.

So the second stage was collectively exploring what lay behind these figures – what were the root causes of these incidents. This led to the final discussion about what we could all do that would be most effective in reducing the harm burden.

The whole exercise was based on the understanding that industry itself is best placed to develop solutions, which reinforces one of my mantras – those who create the risk are responsible for controlling it. It was a very constructive exercise.

One example of working with the sector is preventing falls from height. You don’t have to go that far back to remember when scaffolding was a rarity on your average residential house build. The problem was that serious falls weren’t all that rare either. So in responses to some pretty ugly statistics (including three deaths in 2010 alone) the Preventing Falls from Height programme was developed in consultation with industry. It was launched in 2011 with the slogan; “Doing nothing is not an option.”

Health and safety inspectors stepped up their engagement with the industry – educating chippies, roofers and the like about the importance of taking proper safety measures to protect people from falls. There was enforcement action as well where necessary and while there was some grumbling initially today the industry is bringing its own innovation to health and safety.

Local companies are taking the lead with the use of safety nets and the development locally of “chippie catcher” membranes. Trade associations are also developing their own guidance material – a sure sign that the industry understands the issue and is taking it seriously.

And it is working. Between 2012 and 2014 WorkSafe recorded an almost 30 percent drop in the number of serious harm incidents reported to it in the construction sector. That is lives saved and dozens of life changing injuries avoided.

There’s no room for complacency, but the construction and demolition industries (and associated trades) deserve to be congratulated for the huge improvements they’ve made in preventing falls from height.

Of course it’s not just in construction where WorkSafe is looking to engage directly with the industry. In May this year the Forestry Industry Council was established. It’s an industry led initiative supported by WorkSafe and ACC, building on the solid work of all parties over the last couple of years responding to a shocking spate of forestry deaths. In agriculture too, WorkSafe is working closely with farmers, community groups and rural retailers to encourage the sector to take ownership of health and safety and find practical solutions to help save lives and prevent injuries.

You’ll see more of this approach from WorkSafe over the course of 2016 as workplaces come to grips with the new Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA), which comes into force on April 4. This article is not the place to go into any great detail about the Act – rest assured there will be plenty of information and advice available to support businesses and workers.

The passage into law of the Health and Safety at Work Act is an opportunity for Kiwi workplaces to take a fresh look at how they approach keeping people healthy and safe at work. But the first thing to note is that if you’re already taking a responsible approach to health and safety then little will need to change. And despite the rumours you might hear, the new law won’t automatically mean masses of new paperwork.

The HSWA recognises that each business is best placed to know what it should do to keep people safe. Businesses need to do what is ‘reasonably practicable’. This means working out what hazards exist but then moving on to think about risk, i.e. what are the chances of the hazard affecting somebody and what level of harm would it lead to. Controls should then be pitched at this level of risk.Under the new law, the organisation has the primary duty of care to ensure the health and safety of its workers and anyone affected by its work. Company officers – directors, board members, chief executives and partners have a specific duty to exercise due diligence in making sure that their organisations have in place policies and procedures to identify and manage risk and some means of knowing whether they are delivering on those policies.

Workers have a role too, and must take reasonable care for their own and their fellow workers’ health and safety. The people doing the work are often best placed to identify risks and find the best ways to eliminate or minimise them. So all businesses will be required to have ways in which workers can participate and be involved in health and safety.

And that is the real health and safety challenge for 2016; it’s making sure that, from the boardroom to the shop floor, we are all working together to ensure everyone heads home healthy and safe at the end of the working day.

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