Editorial: Worker safety - policy and practice

Last updated 05:00 01/09/2014

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OPINION: Lyttelton Port is a hot mess of industrial unsafety.

WorkSafe New Zealand's description of the third death in the past year as "completely unacceptable" might invite some derision in itself - how many deaths are just partially unacceptable? - though if you're looking for strained rhetoric you need go no further than the port company's announced commitment last year to Zero Harm - the philosophy that its workplace should have no accidents or incidents.

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This, people may or may not have been reassured to read at the time, was "integral to the company's vision".

Those very words were stale with bureaucratic halitosis. And come on. William Frost and Warren Ritchie, both killed late last year, and now Brad Fletcher. On top of which, WorkSafe points reproachfully to the five improvement notices, six prohibition notices and four - count them, four - written warnings delivered at the port this year. These alongside "several ongoing investigations".

That list is double-edged. WorkSafe's own diligence in this matter is not above question. It casts an upcoming meeting as a chance to set out clearly its expectations and seek a commitment about how the port company will respond to the ongoing health and safety issues.

But if that is happening now then what, for pity's sake, had all that previous effort been in aid of? Is the message going to be "we really mean it this time?"

Port safety is a broader issue nationwide with 11 people killed in the past five years, not counting those who died on docked ships. This at a time when there are more modern mechanisms and fewer workers. That combination may in itself reflect part of the problem. Maritime Union organiser Les Wells, speaking before the most recent tragedy, put it this way: You are dealing with big things. If a mistake is made you are not going to get paper cuts.

A substantial investigation by The Press in June pointed to a lack of training and safety policies at Lyttelton, with inexperienced workers putting in back-to-back shifts, and experienced ones retiring early because of perceived risks. The Council of Trade Unions puts the matter in plain terms: Under-resourcing. The port cannot cope with its volume. It is working people too hard. That's plausible.

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- The Southland Times

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