Safety watchdog must be independent

VERNON SMALL
Last updated 12:00 08/11/2012

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Vernon Small

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OPINION: Health and safety is non-negotiable, according to David Smol. And his Business, Innovation and Employment Ministry did not believe economic growth should be achieved at the expense of health and safety, he said on Tuesday.

Yet the massive failures by employers and government agencies identified in the Pike River royal commission report highlight that very issue.

Should the prime responsibility for health and safety reside with business owners, who stand to make a profit or perhaps avoid a loss?

And how does a regulator, focused on protecting workers, sit inside an agency that is by definition "business-facing" and which sees economic development as its primary mandate?

The royal commission made its proposed answer to the second question crystal clear: create a new stand-alone agency with responsibility for health and safety.

Yet that is the one major recommendation the Government is yet to unequivocally endorse, though Labour Minister Christopher Finlayson said yesterday he saw merit in the idea.

Bear in mind that in repeated statements of intent - the agreement between a department and its minister on its plans and priorities - health and safety only surfaced as a priority this year.

The second question is at the heart of the commission's finding that at Pike River there was "a culture of production over safety" woven out of incentives and the need to get production moving at the cash-strapped company.

The 1992 Health and Safety in Employment Act is explicit that primary responsibility and accountability rests with the employer. As former labour minister Kate Wilkinson said in a letter to West Coast-Tasman MP Damien O'Connor six months before the Pike River explosion: "This reflects the fact that they are in a good position to understand the hazards arising in their workplace and are best placed to take steps to control them."

Underpinning that view is the notion that employers will act in their workers' best interests through a mix of altruism and because that is in their own best (economic) interests. To do otherwise would cost good staff, harm their reputation and in the end prove more costly than fixing the problem - a sort of backstop "enlightened self-interest" argument.

Prime Minister John Key had a stab at defending that approach in the House on Tuesday, saying it was ridiculous to argue a company would be prepared to risk the deaths of its employees and its reputation for the sole purpose of making money.

"In the case of the Pike River mine, let us argue just for a moment that the . . . company was halfway through its mining operations, and was a successful operation . . . An explosion of the magnitude that took place back in 2010 would have then completely and utterly collapsed that company. That would have made no economic sense to anyone."

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Great in theory, but the commission's conclusions about the Pike River practice is the exception that tests the rule - and finds it wanting.

Mr Smol himself conceded that the Labour Department had been "too sanguine" in accepting employers would act appropriately.

As in many areas, tough laws are designed to control the marginal miscreants, not the well- behaved mainstream.

Without a tough line from the regulator, the incentives to duck and weave around health and safety responsibilities can easily gain the upper hand.

Then fold into the mix some New Zealanders' instincts about health and safety - one of the strands in the "nanny state" laws so reviled in the run-up to the 2008 election.

To some, health and safety rules are the spawn of a Gliding On culture beloved of shiny-arsed bureaucrats who put unreasonable impediments in the way of practical, flexible solutions.

Together, that has helped produce one of the worst health and safety records in the developed world.

Rob Jager, who heads the independent workplace health and safety taskforce, provides the stark numbers. New Zealand's workplace death rate is six times that of Britain and twice that of Australia. In New Zealand 100 die each year in the workplace, 400 are seriously hurt and you could fill Eden Park four times with those who are injured.

Other countries are improving their record, we are not.

Relying on a light-touch, self-policing regime has not worked.

The 29 deaths at Pike River have proved that.

Nor will giving the job to a ministry dominated by an economic growth agenda.

The Government ought to accept that too is non-negotiable.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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