Renovating? Health and safety might be your call

As New Zealand's health and safety laws undergo a massive overhaul, a call has gone out for greater liability to fall on renovating homeowners.

Even under existing law it can be interpreted that homeowners are already responsible for providing safe work environments - most just don't know it.

But the Certified Builders Association, one of the industry lobby groups for qualified builders, wants to go a step further, calling for a "clear rationale" to impose health and safety obligations on homeowners under the new Health and Safety Law Reform Bill.

The bill, the most significant reform of our workplace health and safety system in 20 years, is expected to be passed later this year and the Transport and Industrial Relations Select Committee is now considering public submissions.

In a written submission, the Certified Builders Association said because homeowners often made the decision to project manage construction of their home, they should have the same obligation as a builder hired as head contractor.

"Homeowners regrettably often decide on a preferred head contractor based solely on price," it said.

In doing so they normally gave no or little consideration to non-financial and material components of the price such as health and safety, the submission said.

The association was unavailable for further comment.

Its rival member organisation, the Registered Master Builders Association of New Zealand, supports the principle of making homeowners responsible for health and safety in theory. But, in practice, chief executive Warwick Quinn said it would be extremely difficult to enforce.

"We said, in principle, whoever is looking after a building site should have those skills and those necessary obligations yet we accept that if you're a homeowner doing it on a one-off project that might be problematic," Quinn said.

Under the Building Act, if a homeowner was the key point of contact for managing a construction site they were essentially liable for any issues, he said.

"They are in fact a property project manager of that job - in reality that's what they're doing even if they don't realise they're doing it."

But it was unrealistic to expect homeowners to have the same understanding as a qualified tradesperson, he said.

"The question is whether or not you can really expect homeowners to step into that space when it might be a one-off event."

The new law should reinforce to homeowners that health and safety on a construction site was paramount, he said.

"The best that they could hope for is that those homeowners are aware of their obligations, aware of the issues they're inheriting."

In hiring contractors, a homeowner becomes a person conducting a business or undertaking or PCBU, he said.

Under the new law, which from next year replaces the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992, a PCBU is to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of workers and others affected by the work.

But the bill's draft says a PCBU (person conducting a business or undertaking) excludes "an occupier of a home to the extent that the occupier engages or employs another person solely to do residential work in relation to the home".

Senior associate at Swarbrick Beck Mackinnon law firm Matthew McGoldrick said that meant people renovating a house who didn't occupy may not be exempt from health and safety responsibility now or in the future.

Under the current law even the occupier of a home was arguably not exempt from liability because they are a PCBU, providing a workplace for contractors.

"In that case the homeowner/project manager may have some liability under the current law," he said.

Geoff Wilson, spokesman for Site Safe - a not-for-profit society which promotes safety in New Zealand's construction industry - said that there was little to be gained from making homeowners liable for the health and safety of a site.

"A lot of private homeowners would not have the knowledge or skills."

Site safety should be the responsibility of the head contractor, he said.

There was a need to educate homeowners about health and safety risks and encourage them to ask about best practice when hiring a contractor, he said. The new legislation is part of the Government's target to reduce work-related fatalities and serious injury by at least 10 per cent by 2016 and 25 per cent by 2020.

ACC said the majority of serious work-related injuries occurred in agriculture, forestry, fishing, manufacturing and construction. The Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment estimates 83 workers died from work-related injuries in 2011, and 91 died in 2010.

In 2011 the rate of fatal work-related injury was about four people per 100,000 workers. New Zealand's rate of fatal work-related injuries was higher than that of countries such as Australia, the UK, Sweden, Norway Switzerland and Denmark, it said.

Since the year 2000, many of those countries' rates had declined, while New Zealand's had not.

Based on the Australian model, the reform bill will introduce a new tiered liability regime and a significant increase in the maximum penalty levels for health and safety breaches.

Penalties vary depending on the seriousness of a breach but a maximum fine could be up to $600,000 or five years' imprisonment or both for a PCBU and $3 million for a body corporate.

Sunday Star Times