Shocking work death toll revealed in report

ROB STOCK
Last updated 05:00 16/09/2012

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The number of people harmed at work each year in New Zealand would fill Eden Park four times, a national discussion paper to be released today will reveal.

It is roughly twice as dangerous to work in New Zealand as in Australia and almost four times as dangerous as working in Britain, and that is not counting people injured while driving in connection with work.

The cost to the nation of the workplace carnage is $3.5 billion a year.

The report is from the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety, which has been tasked with cutting the injury and death toll by 25 per cent by 2020 - the equivalent of one Eden Park's worth of casualties.

Taskforce chairman Rob Jager, the chairman of Shell in New Zealand, says that is possible, but he won't be clapping himself on the back for a job well done if a 25 per cent reduction is all that is achieved.

“A 25 per cent reduction in 100 deaths is only 25. It still means we are killing 75 people in our workplaces and it still means we are worse than Australia and substantially worse than the UK," Jager said.

"Twenty-five per cent is a realistic target, but I am substantially more ambitious than that."

Exactly why New Zealand's health and safety record is so bad is a question the taskforce is hoping to answer with the help of business and the public, who are invited to make submissions on how the country can reduce workplace injuries.

The taskforce is charged with developing a policy package by April next year, after which the Government will decide what to do and how much to spend on it.

The only thing the taskforce is not allowed to consider is the future of ACC, though the cost of running the giant no-fault accident insurer would plummet if the taskforce is effective.

On the task ahead, Jager cautions against self-reproach and negativity.

“This is a fantastic opportunity," he said. "We certainly have a performance which is unsustainable and unacceptable but there are a lot of people, a lot of companies, already doing great things here."

The report will describe the current system and indicate areas that may be contributing to our poor record.

The breakdown of our industries compared with places such as Australia and Britain doesn't explain much of the differing health and safety records, and the report will suggest that aspects of our culture, including our oft-cited “She'll be right” mentality, may play a big part.

Jager said the report is careful not to draw any conclusions because, at this stage, the taskforce is seeking the views from all of New Zealand. Readers will, however, find there are some pretty heavy hints at where change might be targeted.

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Company directors are not compelled strongly enough, or frequently trained in more than a cursory manner, to focus on health and safety, Jager believes.

That could mean new duties need to be written into companies law and some failures to keep workers safe could be criminalised.

The words “corporate manslaughter” will even appear in the document, as will mention of reversing the onus of proof when certain health and safety charges are laid.

Such moves would create a high level of incentive for companies and organisations to get health and safety right.

“There is no doubt that directors are currently compelled to take a strong interest in companies' financial matters,” says Jager. “It is very clear that that same drive is not on other matters, particularly health and safety.”

Strong leadership is key to effecting change, says Jager, and he should know. Some years ago, Shell decided its global death toll was unacceptable, and took action. Deaths have fallen by more than three-quarters.

What made the most difference in Shell was leadership, says Jager.

New Zealand needs a culture to foster leadership in health and safety, but the leadership doesn't mean top down, he says. Everyone must play a part, directors, management, workers, and customers.

Workers taking a lead is essential, though a casualised workforce with lower union membership may be a growing barrier to workers' ability to raise safety alerts. Experience shows legal rights enabling staff to refuse to do unsafe work are rarely used.

Jager recognises that it was not easy to speak up, and a shift in the perceived acceptability of that is needed.

“It's tough. Absolutely it is tough, but what is even worse is going to talk to the person's loved one and thinking, ‘If only I had spoken up'.”

Another focus of the report will be on possible regulatory failure, including the very low use of some enforcement mechanisms - the “infringement notices” introduced in 2003, for example, are rarely used.

With fewer than 150 health and safety inspectors, the chances of a company or director ever encountering one is pretty low.

Data on workplace safety is also patchy, and reporting mechanisms appear not to function perfectly, Jager says.

He believes New Zealand needs the kind of revolution we have had in attitudes to smoking and drink-driving, societal changes that show how national behaviour can be fundamentally and lastingly changed.

When the country does decide to compete on something with other countries, it has shown itself capable of beating them, says Jager, so getting ahead of Australia should be possible.

“It ought to be a natural and normal part of the way we do business,” he says.

Jager says one thing that has surprised him is how little the country's poor record is understood by New Zealanders.

“The thing that has struck me in being part of this taskforce is the lack of awareness. I think, when confronted with it, people will come to realise it is unacceptable and unsustainable.”

The taskforce is being careful not to prejudge the issues or solutions, he says. Developing better workplace safety is a task that will never be fully completed.

“It is a journey without end," Jager says.

As well as reducing the national bill for death and accidents in the workplace, there would be another likely social dividend with behavioural changes also lowering the number of accidents outside the workplace.

- Sunday Star Times

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