The new Health and Safety at Work Act is here, bringing new responsibilities for everyone in the workplace. WorkSafe New Zealand Sector Engagement Manager Bryce Fleury explains what this means in practice.

There has been plenty of discussion about what the new law means for different industries and businesses. This is a good thing because first and foremost people need to think and talk about workplace health and safety.

In international terms, New Zealand’s record is extremely poor; our worker fatality rate is about three times higher than the UK and one and half times that of Australia. In New Zealand, on average 50 people a year die on the job, one in 10 is harmed and more than 600 die from work-related diseases – all coming at a cost of $3.5 billion per year to the New Zealand economy. And that doesn’t take into account the social and psychological costs on the friends, family and co-workers of those people hurt or killed on the job.

The toll on the building and construction industry includes 54 deaths in the six years ending December 2013, and over 20,000 severe injuries (out of a workforce of around 180,000). These numbers don’t include health issues and let’s not forget that construction workers are twenty times more likely to die as a result of respiratory disease than from injuries suffered as a result of work.

Who is responsible for health and safety? The short answer is; everyone –

The Government has set the target of reducing these deaths and serious injuries by at least 25 percent by 2020. The new Act introduces some important, positive concepts to help bring about a much-needed health and safety culture change in this country.

Naturally, people want to know what this means to them.

The Act recognises that each business is best placed to know what it should do to keep workers safe. If an organisation already takes a responsible approach to health and safety then little will need to change. In fact this is a great opportunity for organisations to review their health and safety practices and culture and, if needed, revise how they manage critical risks that could cause illness, injury or even death.

So who is responsible for health and safety?

The short answer is; everyone – from the boardroom to the frontline; but with clear levels of responsibility.

The first new concept of the Act is the PCBU (Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking). Despite its name this term captures almost every type of business entity (from large companies to sole traders). It will have the primary duty of care – ‘as far as is reasonably practicable’ – to ensure the health and safety of its workers and anyone affected by its work. It is responsible for managing risks, either by eliminating them or, if that’s not possible, minimising them.

‘Reasonably practical’ means the business is only responsible for what it can control. The new law also brings new responsibilities for company ‘officers’ – Directors, Board members, Chief Executives and Partners – who will be responsible for health and safety due diligence. Practically speaking this means ensuring their business has the right policies, procedures, equipment and resources to manage and monitor risks.‘Workers’ mean all people carrying out work in any capacity for an organisation even if they aren’t directly employed by it.

Working together

It’s also about collaboration, particularly where the duties of two or more organisations affect the health and safety of the same workers. The nature of construction means that on any given day builders, electricians and plumbers might all work on the same site and their work may affect each other. The client, even if not on site, can also affect their work e.g. by sending time frames and budgets. The Act aims to ensure that these businesses work together to keep their workers safe, making sure that everyone knows who is taking the lead on each health and safety matter.

The law focuses on how we work more than where we work. Involving workers in health and safety matters is a strong component of the Act. For example on building sites risks might include standing on high structures, driving heavy vehicles, wiring electrical appliances, and carrying heavy loads. The people doing the driving, wiring, carrying etc. are best placed to identify the risks in their work and the equipment, training or behaviours required to minimise them. All employers will need to engage with their workers and have a good worker participation process. Worker participation practices are not set in stone in the Act; they could range from toolkit talks to health and safety committees depending on the size and nature of a business. (Compare a sparkie with two staff to a large contractor with hundreds of staff across the country).

What can businesses do now to get prepared?

Leaders, step up and be accountable – If you are an officer, you will be responsible for due diligence, ensuring your organisation complies with its obligations. This means keeping up to date with work health and safety matters; knowing the nature of your organisation’s operations and the associated risks; and assessing the resources and processes to manage these risks. In the same way that you will always be assessing things like finances and resourcing, health and safety should be treated as a fundamental part of running a business.

Identify and manage your risks – remember, it’s not just safety, health is also at stake. It’s about doing what is ‘reasonably practicable’ given the level of risk, the chance of an incident happening and how much control an organisation has in managing it. Culture change – Make health and safety a part of your organisation’s culture. The question is not “Do I have a liability?”, but “How do I improve health and safety?” Get all staff thinking this way……and get them involved – not just because it’s the law but because they can help you. Workers can see what’s happening on the ground and can work with employers to improve health and safety.

Engage and educate

As a regulator, WorkSafe is not all about enforcement. In fact their over-riding focus is to embed good workplace health and safety culture and best practice in New Zealand. To do that they will join forces with organisations and workers to educate them about their responsibilities and engage them in making changes that reduce the chances of harm. WorkSafe will of course enforce where it has to for those who fail in their duties but as a regulator they aim to be proportionate and fair. Regulation and enforcement alone are blunt instruments unless matched with engagement and education.

There are those who still see health and safety as just another compliance chore, but a strong commitment to a healthy workplace can deliver you better staff retention and engagement, higher   productivity, greater client commitment and a significant return on investment.

What happens next?

WorkSafe has been working with other regulatory bodies and businesses, providing information to help business make sure they are up to speed. Formal guidance, as a result of regulations, has been issued from late 2015.

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