Dangerous buildings break work safety laws

LIZ MCDONALD
Last updated 05:00 26/11/2013

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Christchurch Earthquake 2011

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Bosses knowingly sending staff to work in earthquake-prone buildings are breaking health and safety laws.

The government agency responsible for upholding health and safety rules - the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) - admits it has taken no action on quake-prone buildings.

Employers and landlords must provide safe workplaces under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992. Breaches can attract up to $500,000 in fines or a two-year prison term.

Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly said the inaction to ensure buildings were safe was putting workers lives at risk. In some cases businesses had moved out of risky buildings, only for others to move in.

"People were killed at work in Christchurch," she said. "New Zealand's got a very bad record in this regard."

Kelly urged workers to make a fuss about the issue.

"Don't just sit quietly while businesses operate in dangerous buildings, especially in earthquake-prone centres."

The act says employers and those in control of workplaces must take "all practicable steps" to provide a safe environment for staff and visitors, and identify and control any hazards.

The laws apply to someone who "controls a place of work", including business owners, managers and property owners.

The ministry does not check workplaces for earthquake safety, and a spokesman said it was the responsibility of employers to make sure they met their legal requirements. He said the ministry was "in the last stage of finalising its advice for employers on this issue".

Kelly believed the ministry should have carried out health and safety workplace investigations after the Canterbury quakes.

She suggested government incentives, perhaps underwriting or discounting insurance, to encourage owners to upgrade and avoid the "double whammy" of high premiums and strengthening costs.

Christchurch lawyer Garth Gallaway said the legal responsibilities of employers and landlords were clear, and were not cancelled out by some councils giving owners a decade or more to strengthen buildings.

"There were no prosecutions from the Canterbury earthquakes but we are now all on notice," he said. In another event the authorities were likely to adopt a stricter approach.

Gallaway, a health and safety law specialist who represented the Mines Rescue Trust at the Pike River inquiry, said landlords and employers were in a "precarious position" even in cases of no harm.

He recently alerted other lawyers at an Auckland District Law Society forum in Christchurch to the situation.

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Unfortunately, owners were up for big strengthening costs and tenants could remain liable for rent even if they moved out, he said. Tenants needed to educate themselves, and leases should include clauses on building safety.

Gallaway believed the Government and public had short memories after events such as earthquakes and mining disasters, but needed to remain alert.

"Do we allow the same things to happen again, or should the MBIE be more rigorous?"

A new report from commercial real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle noted that since the Canterbury and central New Zealand earthquakes, businesses were "not willing to take risks on their employees' safety in buildings" and banks were wary of lending against them.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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