Australia has opened another significant trans-Tasman gap. New Zealand's workplace injury rates are about twice those in that country, according to the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety, set up this year to make recommendations to the Government on how to reduce workplace accidents. They are almost six times those of the UK. Taskforce chairman Rob Jager, chairman of Shell NZ, was a master of understatement: “This is simply not good enough and needs to change.”
The taskforce has drawn a colourful analogy to illustrate its concerns. The number injured in the workplace in this country every year would fill Eden Park almost four times. The supportive data are disturbing: about 100 people die each year from workplace accidents, 25,000 people are hurt severely enough to be off work for a week, 370 are hospitalised and diagnosed with life-threatening conditions and more than 190,000 people lodge ACC claims. The taskforce estimates the cost each year at $3.5 billion.
About the same time as those figures were being disseminated, a 29-year-old man was being airlifted to hospital after a forestry accident near Ruatoria. A few days earlier, an accident on a portable sawmill in Taranaki left a young man without his legs.
We all have a chance to help the Government decide what should be done (although its preoccupation with cost-cutting in recent years somewhat ominously implies the cheaper the suggested remedy, the more likely it is to be adopted). The taskforce has released a consultation document outlining the key issues and inviting public input into the first major examination of the workplace health and safety system in 20 years.
As Mr Jager pointed out, workplace injuries are not isolated issues: they result from a combination of factors, such as changing workplace practices and environments, regulatory “fitness”, even our own culture.
Heftier fines and tougher penalties for companies and directors are among the likely outcomes (our top fines lag far behind Australia's). A boost in health and safety inspectors is on the cards, too.
More effective measures can't come soon enough. Australia lures enough of our working people with higher wages without the bonus of being able to brag its working conditions are safer, too.
- © Fairfax NZ News