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Safeguard Magazine

Regulator report—Exit interview

GORDON MacDONALD poses questions to two leaders who are stepping down, NZCTU president Helen Kelly and BusinessNZ chief executive Phil O’Reilly.

Those of you who attended the highly successful Safeguard conference this year may recall I said I was not going to stand up and “drone on at you”. I didn’t and we had what I thought was a very spirited panel discussion about health and safety from a union, business and regulator perspective. In the spirit of not droning on at you again, I thought the decisions by Helen Kelly and Phil O’Reilly to step down from their leadership roles this year gave them an opportunity to take stock of achievements and look to the future.

As a group, what do you believe we have achieved together?

HELEN: I think together we have taken a strong stand for change. BusinessNZ and the CTU have supported the new organisation and called for the Taskforce recommendations to be implemented, and Worksafe have taken on the spirit of these changes and shown they can work.

PHIL: I think we have reached a good accord based on our shared desire for safe workplaces.

I am most proud of …

PHIL: The goodwill being shown and the concrete steps being taken towards reducing harm in New Zealand workplaces.

HELEN: The combined work on forestry safety as an example of collaboration. Our campaign to improve safety combined with WorkSafe’s systematic inspection of contractors and other safety programmes, with BusinessNZ clearly stating that the accident rate was unacceptable, provided a strong collaboration without wriggle room. Forestry employers are now very involved and on board and things are changing. Now, about farming …

Where do you think the gaps are? What still needs to be addressed?

HELEN: The law needs to be passed without the “watering down” proposed. ACC is stopping our funding of health and safety representative training (CTU and BusinessNZ). We are the stakeholders in this and should do the training. We provide the follow-up and support to these reps. It is pure “Collins” ideology at play which will result in a significant loss of capacity at the very place it is needed – workplaces. The transition training being funded will have no follow-up to workers and many will not get trained.

PHIL: We have a big challenge in our workplace profile, with many small or micro businesses operating in isolated areas, often outdoors in challenging conditions, sometimes in relatively dangerous occupations. Meanwhile, larger, city-based businesses have very different needs. So we need a health and safety system that works for all types of businesses and which everyone thinks is fair.

Statistics tell us that New Zealand has a worse workplace health and safety record than Australia and the United Kingdom. What does this country need to do to turn this around?

PHIL: We need to start by accepting that in some areas our safety culture has been poor compared with some other developed countries. We need to get in behind the new health and safety law. We need to keep workplace health and safety as a top priority.

HELEN: It needs to empower workers within their workplaces with rights, training and support. No official can be there all of the time but workers are capable of being the safety leaders if they are supported. We need the new law, we welcome the new WorkSafe, but again we may be heading to a two-legged stool where the most important leg is missing.

What is the biggest challenge facing business when it comes to health and safety? What about for workers? What about for the regulator?

HELEN: For business it is the lack of standardisation. I hear it all the time – each reinvention of the wheel (or not!) and being unsure what to do. For the regulator it is maintaining the support of Government – we feel the Government is unhappy to finally have a competent regulator and the risk is they undermine it. For workers it is being safe and knowledgeable enough to participate in health and safety. Workers that participate in health and safety are heroes but are often depicted as troublemakers!

PHIL: The challenge for business is to facilitate systems that help everyone act safely and responsibly. The challenge for employees is to contribute to safety systems and look out for their own and others’ safety. The challenge for the regulator is to achieve a widespread understanding of and support for the need for safety.

If you could make one change to make New Zealand workplaces safer, what would it be?

PHIL: I’d like to see a systems approach adopted widely in New Zealand workplaces – not necessarily the same system for every workplace, but a system that works for each individual workplace, covering hazards identification, risk minimisation, monitoring and so on. Having a systematic approach to safety helps reduce the likelihood of individual error.

HELEN: Workplaces where workers who demand and participate in safety are welcomed.

What do you want to see from WorkSafe as the health and safety regulator? What do you want to see from the CTU? What do you want to see from BusinessNZ?

HELEN: More of the same from WorkSafe and some of the massive backlog of legacy work to get under way (eg outdated regulations, systems for inspections etc). For BusinessNZ we want to see them advocate around the hard things which are putting workers at risk, like poor employment laws that incentivise long hours and few protections. For the NZCTU – we want to continue our strong advocacy for change and to be supported to continue work such as our health and safety rep training.

PHIL: I’d like to see WorkSafe being more than just a regulator and in addition being an active leadership organisation helping, influencing, publicising, adding value and taking businesses along on the journey. I’d like to see BusinessNZ and the CTU continuing to strengthen their partnership for workplace safety. I’d like all parties to recognise our “New Zealandness”, and to work towards a system that is fit for purpose given our specific attributes and needs.

Are you optimistic about the future of workplace safety in New Zealand? Why/Why not?

PHIL: Absolutely. While nothing happens overnight, there is a real groundswell of energy to make a change for good in New Zealand. The main thing is to stay on the wave and not let it pass us by.

HELEN: I would be very optimistic if the law gets passed as recommended and if the Government backs off WorkSafe. If the law is amended as currently proposed and representative training is removed or privatised (as the transition training has been) then I fear workplace safety in New Zealand will go backwards.

As you step back from your formal leadership roles, what advice do you have for those who step up to take over from you?

HELEN: Don’t shy away from calling it like it is. Everyone shut up too long about the Pike River mine disaster for fear of appearing opportunist, leading to its CEO being nominated for New Zealander of the Year. We need strong voices that may sound uncomfortable to the ear for a bit, but in the end, will make workplaces safer and give others confidence to speak out.

PHIL: Health and safety is not a game. It is deadly serious. It must not be used for grandstanding or political point-scoring. The issue deserves the best attention we can give.

If there is one incident/accident/death in the workplace that resonates with you, what is that?

PHIL: I think of incidents where obvious things that should have been done were not done, with tragic results. The grief and terrible waste resonates with me.

HELEN: Tom Sewell, Charanpreet Dhaliwal and Joseph Dunbar – all killed on their first days at work. All under 25, all with no training and in workplaces without safety systems. Tom and Charanpreet were visitors to NZ, their parents thought they were coming to the safest place in the world. Let’s improve the safety system for them and their families.

Gordon MacDonald is chief executive of WorkSafe New Zealand.

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