Curbing workplace deaths led by public sector

Curbing workplace deaths led by public sector

Sir Peter Jackson's decision to opt out of his director's role for Weta Workshops because of impending health and safety legislation has had a beneficial impact - highlighting the opportunity for public sector leaders to help curb New Zealand's "disgraceful" workplace record.

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Souella Cumming, KPMG's partner who leads their New Zealand government sector practice, says the Health and Safety At Work Act comes into force on April 4 and is an effort to clean up the country's poor workplace safety.

On average, 60 Kiwis are fatally injured at work every year; 4,900 are seriously harmed, and over a million injured through work, costing ACC over $1.68 billion annually. New Zealand workers are twice as likely to be killed or suffer serious harm as Australians and six times more likely than UK workers.

Cumming says the toll is disgraceful and the government's aim is to reduce those figures by at least 25 per cent by 2020 with a raft of new measures, making directors personally liable for health and safety, requiring they be engaged and across all aspects of the business on a day-to-day basis.

The new Act has much tougher penalties, making directors liable (among others) for health and safety; those responsible can be fined up to $3 million or face up to five years' jail.

Jackson's decision to quit his directorship of Weta (he remains a part owner) was widely reported in the media, perceived by some as a sign the legislation could persuade some directors to quit rather than place themselves in a position of liability.But Cumming says Jackson's action also had a positive impact, bringing the new legislation into the public eye and giving the public sector a chance to show the way."While the governance arrangements are different across the public sector and many agencies do not have boards and directors as such, their leadership teams are just as affected by the legislation as any other organisation.

"They have an opportunity to show this legislation is not only necessary but capable of being implemented efficiently, without undue hardship on the organisation concerned. Similar laws were enacted in Australia and we have seen real improvements in work safety performance there.

"The work of the Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Authority (CERA) was an example of how the public sector could lead the way, she says.

In an environment where safety was a clear and obvious need, CERA had worked hard with various agencies, contractors and workforces involved in the Christchurch re-build - setting up a Safety Re-Build Charter. It had worked well - with no fatalities thus far.

"The legislation asks companies and organisations to consult, co-ordinate and co-operate and that's what CERA did," says Cumming. "Now the onus is on other public sector organisations to do the same sort of thing and raise the bar.

"There is some education to be done within the private sector director pool, I think; they need to know what health and safety now means, what the implications are and how they need to be pro-active.

"For many years, health and safety has been considered a low-level, operational area of the business. That is now being turned on its head - the requirement for health and safety has now made its way to the board table or, in the case of the public service, to the leadership team table.

"However, she says not all public sector bodies are as advanced as CERA: "I think there has to be a mindset change. For instance, they can't just contract a service out to someone and think the other party will look after health and safety. The law requires them to consult, coordinate and co-operate; they just can't pass the responsibility to a contractor.

"There were obvious ramifications in the public service organisations dealing with probation, prisons, social work, customs and border control and even office-oriented environments like WINZ or IRD.It is time, she says, for health and safety to be lifted from what has traditionally been considered a secondary concern in many organisations to a key business opportunity and dealt with at strategic and governance levels.

"The intent is to get leaders to understand the health and safety and wellbeing risks in the workplace and to take responsibility for making sure people get home safely." 

orgianally published in the NZ Herald

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