Farmers wary of safety law changes

Moves to toughen up on occupational safety breaches are being welcomed with some caution in Manawatu.

Unions Manawatu convenor John Shennan said reform was years overdue, while Federated Farmers Manawatu-Rangitikei dairy chairman James Stewart said the changes needed to be practical.

"We are wanting to reduce the accident rate and we're wanting to put things in place to help that, but we've got to be sensible," Stewart said.

As progress on the Health and Safety Reform Bill edges closer, key players in Manawatu wonder what the changes will mean for them.

The bill was introduced in March as part of the Government's Working Safer package.

Minister of Labour Simon Bridges called it the biggest health and safety reforms in 20 years. "The new law will be supported by stronger enforcement and education, and will play a major role in meeting our target of reducing New Zealand's workplace injury and death toll by 25 per cent by 2020."

Bridges said the bill, currently before a select committee, had received a large number of submissions. The bill will create the new Health and Safety at Work Act, replacing the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992.

Part of the bill will mean more responsibility and legal requirements on managers and company directors to manage risks and keep their workers safe.

There will be stronger penalties, enforcement tools, graduated offence categories and court powers.

There will be a new tiered liability regime and, overall, a significant increase in the maximum penalty levels, including increased prison sentences for reckless conduct.

One possible change is the introduction of a charge of corporate manslaughter.

The Ministry of Justice was continuing to monitor the international use of corporate manslaughter charges, a spokesperson said. Overseas experience indicated that corporate manslaughter laws had resulted in few successful prosecutions.

Stewart said Federated Farmers supported the bill but hoped it was realistic.

"We've just got to keep things practical, from a farmer's perspective.

"It's got to be practical otherwise farmers will generally start taking shortcuts or doing things to avoid it.

"You can't always eliminate every little thing.

"[We're] not saying we should be reckless, you've got to be responsible, but we do know it's a high-risk industry."

Shennan said he would like to see more done to ensure the safety of workers.

He thinks the consideration of a corporate manslaughter charge is a positive step, saying managers should not be able to hide behind business laws.

"Regardless of how bad the law is at present, there are certain employers who are prepared to take positive steps and look after their workers' interest.

"The problem is dealing with the rogue employers who are only focused on making a profit; it's them who need strong regulation."

The Government hopes to pass the law by the end of this year.

Manawatu Standard