Taskforce tackles lax safety record

My first real job, at the age of 17, was on a roading gang.

My new-found career involved driving steamrollers without a licence on a rural highway, drinking hard, working 12-hour days hungover, and enduring hair-raising, high-speed commutes with a foreman who liked to frighten people.

My employer had a proud history and believed it looked after its people well, but if there was a formal health and safety policy, it wasn't apparent, and this was typical.

In my more than three decades of working life, health and safety have been the boring issue that requires annoying precautions, and is often the butt of office politics.

At one workplace, requests for a "Mind Your Head" sign were archly met with a "Mind Your Step" notice. At another, it was hilarious that the head of health and safety was accident-prone. Actually, that was quite funny.

Another employer dumped new desks on the forecourt of Parliament for its puny hacks to heft up two flights of marble stairs. A decade later, the resulting back injuries finally abated.

Covering the 1999 East Timor independence referendum and violent aftermath was exciting, but it did occur to me one scary night in Dili, barricaded in my bathroom with a towel rail for a weapon, that reporting on the sharemarket had been insufficient training for that sort of thing.

Perhaps most extraordinary was running late on a junket for the train from Featherston. With the chairman of NZ Rail among the passengers, our NZR bus driver barrelled over a railway crossing, ignoring lights flashing to warn of an oncoming train.

Over the years, things have changed. When a photo shoot showed workers not wearing hard hats or high-visibility vests, we not only had to do the whole thing again, but it was also a wake-up call that health and safety policies weren't translating into practice.

To much irritation and grumbling, ingrained bad habits among both managers and staff slowly started to come around to doing things safely. Two decades ago, listed companies didn't report accident rates routinely. Now, no self-respecting chief executive will put any priority higher than health and safety.

In a working life in journalism, public relations and road-making, I was one of those who embraced a cavalier attitude to safety in the workplace. I probably still do.

It was impossible not to snort when a former colleague informed me he may no longer carry takeaway coffees up a flight of stairs for fear of the scalding, tripping, falling and slipping risk.

The thing is, I now know his attitude is right and that mine is not only dangerous in some basic way, but also a Kiwi cultural phenomenon.

Foreign investors in New Zealand companies routinely express horror at the lax "every man for himself" attitude that still prevails in many industries.

Even with the best efforts of the Accident Compensation Corporation to penalise industries that harm their people, this is one area where "she'll be right" is proving hard to crack.

Indeed, it's the multinationals in dangerous industries such as oil and gas, smelting and chemicals which have shown the way for New Zealand companies, which explains why Shell's New Zealand chairman, Rob Jager, is heading the Independent Taskforce on Work Place Health and Safety.

Its recent report shone a light on poor health and safety practice here: an average of 100 accidental workplace deaths a year, another 1000 or so dying from slowly accumulated workplace ailments, 6000 notifiable serious injuries a year, and more than 190,000 individual ACC claims.

About 23,000 people a year are hurt badly enough to need a week or more off work. In other industrialised countries, these rates of harm are simply no longer tolerated.

For example, we record about six times more accidents than the British, and twice as many as Australian employers.

Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson says the Government is determined to turn around what the taskforce called "New Zealand's unacceptable and unsustainable workplace health and safety record".

On this occasion, businesses should expect both compliance and actual costs to rise, because the policy response is likely to be largely regulatory, and if new regulations are to do the job well, the engagement of both employers and employees everywhere will be vital.

Between October 9 and 25, the taskforce is holding nationwide consultation on the causes and impacts of workplace harm. Considering contributing: Your life may depend on it. BusinessDesk