Tougher safety line in rebuild already visible

Stephanie Grieve, of Duncan Cotterill Lawyers, looks at health and safety issues around the Christchurch rebuild.

The spotlight is well and truly on health and safety obligations across all industries, most notably after the release of the Royal Commission's report on the Pike River tragedy.

As a result, the Christchurch rebuild is likely to come under particular scrutiny from what's now known as the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) - that is, the former Department of Labour.

Indications from MBIE inspectors are that a harder line is already being taken in Christchurch, even before any official push from Wellington.

The Royal Commission report was not only damning of the governance and management of the Pike River mine, but also of New Zealand's health and safety system in general. Problems identified include the Health and Safety in Employment Act being non-prescriptive.

While it places broad obligations on employers, in many industries there are no specific codes of practice or regulations which make it clear what exactly needs to be done to comply with the act.

This meant that the Department of Labour was less engaged as a regulator and left employers to work out what they needed to do to comply with the law.

The Government has accepted almost all of the recommendations of the Royal Commission report although it has not yet indicated a firm position on whether a separate department should be set up solely to regulate workplace health and safety.

Legislative overhaul of the current regime is a certainty.

That process is likely to commence next year after the Independent Taskforce on Health & Safety has reported to the minister in April, following a consultation process which has just been completed.

In the meantime, however, employers can expect increased vigilance from the MBIE and should ensure their health and safety systems are robust.

One area of focus for the rebuild is safe working at height.

Earlier this year, MBIE launched new Best Practice Guidelines for Working at Height.

This was followed by a programme of education and enforcement to increase awareness in the construction industry.

MBIE says that residential sites in Christchurch will be targeted.

It says it has shut down work on 215 residential building sites out of 760 visited since the beginning of July as part of its crackdown, and 400 enforcement actions have commenced for non- compliance.

The Christchurch rebuild will see growth in the construction and infrastructure industries on a scale unprecedented in recent times. Project management companies (sometimes referred to as PMOs) , in particular, are emerging as key players.

Many major construction firms are partnering with insurance companies to project manage the repair and rebuild work. They are tasked with managing multiple projects under time and cost pressure.

Health and safety is an obvious risk if they do not have correct systems in place. These include:

Communications with the council, EQC, the Department of Building and Housing and other agencies.

Claims processes and document management (consents, producer statements, payment claims etc).

Contractor accreditation.

The Christchurch Rebuild Safety Forum was set up in 2010 with a goal of ensuring safety in the rebuild.

It comprises Cera, Scirt, ACC and MBIE as the five main construction contractors and has become a key body in organising safety of contractors across the rebuild process.

An innovation of the forum is AppCon, which is a register of contractors who have undertaken a pre- qualification process looking specifically at health and safety systems to enable principals, project management offices (PMOs) and head contractors to select an appropriate contractor for the work.

AppCon gives contractors an independent rating on health and safety issues according to a traffic light system, with a green light indicating quality health and safety systems, an orange light indicating systems which need some work and a red light indicating no systems in place.

This system is crucial in ensuring that only contractors with adequate health and safety procedures will be able to ensure a flow of work.

Given the influx of new labour into Christchurch, some of which will come from overseas where standards may be different, these tools will allow a uniform and invaluable criteria against which contractors will be assessed.

Many PMOs have committed to using the register as part of their accreditation process, which is a key way of ensuring that health and safety is fundamental to an ability of contractors to obtain work.

Stephanie Grieve is a partner of Duncan Cotterill Lawyers, specialising in health and safety law.

The Press