Skip to Content, Skip to Navigation

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

Profile: Board as leader

Unlike its predecessors as health and safety regulator, WorkSafe New Zealand has a board to oversee its governance. PETER BATEMAN talked to its chair, Dr Gregor Coster.

Gregor Coster’s credentials to chair the board of WorkSafe New Zealand are impeccable. Over the last 15 years he has served on the board of five Crown agencies, including as chair of the Counties Manukau District Health Board and, earlier, the West Coast DHB. He is also deputy chair of Health Workforce New Zealand, and serves on the board of ACC.

As a medical man, he was professor of general practice at the University of Auckland’s medical school for nearly ten years until 2004.

Early in our chat I make a blunder. “Back when you used to be a GP,” I begin, assuming his academic and governance responsibilities would long since have led him to give up seeing patients. Wrong.

“For the record, I am still practising!” He works as a GP in a rural area near Taupo, dealing predominantly with people in manual jobs in the bush, or at power stations and plywood plants. In the past he has practised in leafy Remuera, as well as in west and south Auckland. He’s seen patients with just about every occupational injury and illness, including asbestosis, mesothelioma, pulmonary fibrosis and other conditions related to unclean air.

“Just last week I was suturing a worker who had sustained a blow from a log which flew out of a wood splitter. He had tendon injuries.”

Point taken. He might be board chair, but he still gets his hands dirty at the coalface of medicine.

It was during medical training at Otago University that he first became aware of workplace health and safety as something doctors should watch out for. Later he worked in hospitals for five years before starting in general practice. “You’re dealing with the consequences of injury at work, and let’s not forget mental health such as workplace bullying – those are issues, surprising to some, that GPs deal with reasonably frequently.”


He is pleased with the spread of experience brought to the boardroom table by his fellow WorkSafe board members Ross Wilson (deputy chair), Paula Rose, Chris Ellis, Kerry Prendergast, Patrick Strange and Don Stock, who he says work together very well. He stresses that creating a new agency from scratch is a collaborative effort involving many people, and in particular acknowledges the support the fledgling establishment board received from Gaye Searancke and Stuart White of MBIE, and from Geoffrey Podger who served as acting chief executive during WorkSafe’s establishment period. And a big tick for current WorkSafe chief Gordon MacDonald: “Gordon has been excellent, I’m delighted with the work he has been doing.”

Not that life as a board member consists only of a monthly meeting in Wellington. Each of them has been out in the field with WorkSafe inspectors, and Coster himself has spoken to dozens of boards of directors to brief them on WorkSafe’s aims and activities. He recalls a session with the Fonterra board when he was put on the spot: what, they wanted to know, was the single most important thing that would make a difference to New Zealand’s health and safety performance?

He told them it’s about culture change. “This is not a two-year piece of work. It’s a ten-year programme as we change our health and safety culture to something like we see in the UK. It takes time, we know that.”


He commends the Government for having the “clarity of vision” to follow the recommendations of the Pike River Royal Commission and the Independent Task-force on health and safety and establish a separate Crown agency to focus solely on workplace health and safety. The role of the WorkSafe board, he says, is national leadership to assist in building that new national culture.

As for WorkSafe operationally, Coster says numbers have grown from 350 to 500, and by the end of June this year there will be 165 warranted inspectors, on the road to a target of 200. He is delighted with the quality of people wanting to join the agency. For one round of inspector vacancies, he recalls, there were 2200 applications for 16 positions, underlining what he describes as “an exciting new agency with a great future”.

WorkSafe has invested in the inspectorate, he says. A new inspector used to get 16 days of classroom training and six months of supervised practice. That is now doubled, and $4 million has been invested in professional development of existing inspectors. As part of staff consultation it was discovered they wished to be clearly identified as being from WorkSafe, resulting in agreement on a uniform and on clear branding for vehicles.


I ask what the board has learned in its year-and-a-bit of existence. He cites the value of collaboration with others, the need to persuade business to own the issue (and the solutions), and to hold people to account for managing workplace risk.

“Those who create the risk are responsible for managing the risk,” he says, repeating what has become a mantra restated by Gordon MacDonald at countless seminars around the country over the last year.

“We are keen to avoid the notion WorkSafe is here to solve every problem. We are there to engage, to educate, and to enforce. The three Es. We need business to own the problem and the solution, rather than expect the regulator to turn up and tell them what to do.”

On accountability, he says it has to involve employees as well as boards of directors and senior executives. “It’s about employers and employees working together to create solutions to keep workers safe.”

On collaboration, he cites his own appointment to the ACC board to ensure close cooperation on injury prevention and joint work programmes such as Safer Farms and the Safety Star Rating Scheme, which he says has already proven to be a fruitful partnership. Similarly helpful was the appointment of Kerry Prendergast, chair of the Environmental Protection Authority, to the board of WorkSafe – especially with WorkSafe taking over the HSNO regulations as they apply to workplaces.

“That is a smooth transition in progress. We’ll be bringing over some EPA staff to ensure the knowledge is transferred as well.”

And then there are close partnerships with the Council of Trade Unions and Business New Zealand, which both send representatives to sit in on board meetings three times a year. Links are also close with the Business Leaders’ Health and Safety Forum, where both Chris Ellis and Don Stock are represented. Other relationships include NZTA, NZ Defence Force, CAA, Maritime NZ, and the NZ Police.


As for WorkSafe’s “three Es” intervention model – engage, educate, enforce – Coster offers an example of all three coming together in a single visit. He and an inspector ventured into the bush to visit a line hauling gang working in a Northland forest. They found men working too close to the line hauler as it pulled up four logs at a time. A log need only have bounced and a man would have been killed or seriously injured.

The inspector called them together and went through the issues the team had discussed earlier in the day at a toolbox meeting. He discovered they had failed to grasp safe practice, and that three workers had literacy levels too low to read safety information in their hut. An hour was spent on education. “Gregor and I are going to go away for an hour while you sort out your safety plan,” the inspector said.

An hour later they returned. The gang had their red, orange and green zones sorted. The inspector put up a prohibition notice on the board and told them to stop work. Half a minute later, satisfied they knew what the consequences could have been, he tore it down and said get back to work.

“That was about engagement, education and enforcement all at once. It’s what we expect to see: business responding to the requirements, figuring out a solution and owning it, and then getting back to work.”

Taking a wider view of forestry, Coster recalls that after the industry’s horror year in 2013 when ten workers were killed, WorkSafe inspectors visited 200 falling operations and 200 line hauling operations, issuing more than 800 notices – including 110 stop-work notices because of dangerous practices. There was one forestry death in 2014 – an improvement he hopes continues, but he is also realistic.

“All credit to Helen Kelly for raising the issue of forestry worker safety, and to the Forest Owners Association and the Forest Industry Contractors Association for stepping up to the plate and commissioning an independent review. The reduction in deaths is an indication people are now taking forestry safety seriously and we commend them for that.

“It shows that when the regulator engages with business and when business takes ownership of the issues you can make significant progress.”


I enquire how a sense of urgency can be created around occupational health, and he acknowledges the obvious disparity in annual deaths: around 75 from injury compared to 600 to 900 from occupational disease. Long latency periods make the issue particularly challenging, but Coster says the Government’s Working Safer policy is clear that WorkSafe must focus on occupational health.

As a response, the first set of advisors established by the WorkSafe board was the Occupational Health Advisory Group chaired by George Adams. The board is collaboratively developing an occupational health strategy which will include specific targets covering things such as asbestos and clean air. A senior management role focused on occupational health will be created and there will be a group of staff with specialist occupational health knowledge based in Wellington.

“Our view is that we should have a virtual network across the organisation, with specialist advice available to inspectors so they can get help when they come across a challenging situation, such as a chlorine leak at a plywood factory. That needs wider support than simply at a local office.”


How, I ask, will the board measure its success a few years from now? Coster cites the Government’s stated target of a 25% reduction in fatalities and serious harm injuries by 2020, as part of its Working Safer policy.

“We are talking about the health and safety of the New Zealand public. It’s an outcome measure. That’s pretty focusing on the mind.”

Thomson Reuters

comments powered by Disqus

From Safeguard Magazine

Table of Contents