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Safeguard Magazine

Canterbury tales

The Canterbury Rebuild Safety Charter has helped transform construction in Christchurch and surrounds and is now influencing thinking elsewhere and in other sectors, reports JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM.

In the four years since the first 33 Christchurch business leaders put their names to the Charter, hoping to raise the health and safety game among post-quake construction workers, the Charter has been transforming the way the industry does business in the city.

Large companies, used to competing at every level, now share their H&S successes – and glitches – with one another; small contractors from the once notorious residential sector are discovering that H&S is a good way to do business; and organisations from other regions – and even other industries – have begun looking to Canterbury for inspiration.

It’s an impressive record for a voluntary organisation with no premises of its own and only one fulltime staff member, so it is little wonder the Charter won the leadership category of this year’s NZ Workplace Health & Safety Awards, and took out the supreme award too.

But how has the Charter achieved so much with so few resources? And is it unique to Canterbury, or could the model be successfully applied elsewhere? On a wintery day, with snow dusting the Port Hills, I’ve come to Christchurch to find out.


First stop is a suburban house where Charter signatory Maiden Group has almost completed major repairs.

A message, spray painted on the driveway in large pink letters, tells me I must sign in, and an arrow directs me to the door, where health and safety manager Dougal Holmes gives me a hi-viz jacket and the compulsory site induction, before taking me to the lounge to meet site foreman Paddy O’Dwyer.

O’Dwyer’s been building for 25 years, mainly in Europe, but his Irish accent remains undiluted. He came to New Zealand four years ago to work on the rebuild, and has been with Maiden for more than half that time. “It’s been really good,” he tells me. “Their attitude to health and safety is up there with the best.”

To Auckland eyes the house we’re in looks like a new build, until Holmes points out a circular patch the size of a saucer in the middle of the floor. The place has been re-levelled, he says. The slab on which it stands was jacked up, and concrete pumped through holes in the floor to provide a new foundation.

Not a skill they’d have had pre-quake? He laughs. “There are a lot of skills we didn’t have, pre-quake.”

Previously a manager with Surf Lifesaving NZ, Holmes joined the construction industry during the post-quake boom. Grappling with a new industry at a challenging time, he became “a sponge” for anything health and safety-related.

“I was looking for any opportunity to broaden my skill base and help with health and safety in the company, so when the Charter came up I knew we had to grab it, and there’s been no looking back.”

At the time, December 2014, few companies working in residential repair were signatories.

“It was a pretty big step for us because most of the others were big names in building. But the new legislation was coming in so it was about getting as much information and opportunities for the guys as we could.”

And has the Charter delivered? Holmes and O’Dwyer are in no doubt it has. They talk of networking, seminars, events–including a moving presentation by Wiremu Edmonds – and the fact that their use of spray paint and marker pens to create clutter-free safety signage won them the charter’s tidy site competition in 2016.

This win, says Holmes, and the recognition of three staff members as Charter champions for showing leadership aligned to its core commitments, have had a positive flow-on effect, helping workers feel more engaged with the Charter.

Both speak highly of the work done by the Charter’s single fulltime worker, Libi Carr, who liaises with the guys in the front line, arranging things like on-site health monitoring and specialised tool box talks.

“A lot of it is stuff we’re already doing, but it’s great to have someone come in and sing the same song,” Holmes says.

As chair of Maiden’s health and safety committee, O’Dwyer has joined the Charter’s new leadership group for health and safety reps. As yet it’s only met once, but he relishes the chance it provides to share information with reps from different companies and trades.

Tradies who are also in the Charter are better to work with, he says. He likes to get the subbies in a week before they start so he can let them know what’s expected in terms of health and safety, and iron out potential problems before work begins.

Do they buy in to the safety message?

“They don’t get a choice. It’s compulsory, and once you do it that way it becomes the same as putting on your boots. You just do it.

“For us, anything with scaffolding is a hard hat site. Simple as that – no argument.

They might do it because they have to, he says, but on the next job they come prepared, with their hard hats ready. “So yeah, it does get through.”

The need to focus on your own sites can make it hard to gauge the overall impact of the Charter, but Holmes says a recent trip to Northland was a wake-up call for him.

“I couldn’t believe some of the things I was seeing [on construction sites] – things that would never happen in Christchurch now.

“I’d like to see something like the Charter happening nationwide – and I think it will.

“We’re already seeing the benefits in Kaikoura – instead of having all these people ride in on their cowboy horses, they’re getting people who know the rules and can work safely.

“That’s the future of construction, and it’s good to be part of it.”


In town, Charter officer Libi Carr works out of the offices of the E tū Union in Cashel St.

It’s been a convenient arrangement, not only because the Charter has no premises of its own, but also because her work has complemented that of fellow tenant Safe Rebuild Canterbury. Now, however, Safe Rebuild’s government funding has come to an end and its safety courses for residential builders will cease at the end of the month.

It’s a positive sign in many ways – an indication that the residential rebuild is at last winding up – but Carr says she and SRC team leader Jo Duffy have worked closely together, and she’ll miss having Safe Rebuild’s training courses to supplement her own work, recruiting and supporting Charter signatories.

“The Charter’s based on ten commitments, which are aspirational but also designed to line up with the legislation,” she says. “There are lots of practical actions you can take to meet these commitments, so I work with people on the ground to help them see that it’s not difficult to make their workplaces safer.”

Sometimes this means arranging workshops or toolbox talks to address specific needs; in other situations it involves calling in an external provider, or making a referral to another agency.

In a handful of cases Carr has found herself dealing with reluctant Charter signatories – small contractors who have been compelled to sign up by the larger companies for whom they work.

“It’s not that they don’t want to have good health and safety – they just don’t know how,” she says. “They think that if they stick their heads up and say “We’ve got no health and safety” they’re going to be in trouble, so they keep their heads down and hope no one notices.

“I make sure they know we’re just glad to have them come through the door.”

Much of Carr’s work involves building relationships with signatories and this, she says, is a big part of the Charter’s success: seeing signatories network and support each other with health and safety.

Carr says when the Charter’s senior leaders get together they are willing to put everything else aside, because this is a space for cooperation.

“It’s a massive attitudinal change, and pretty challenging for people who are used to operating in a very different arena, but it’s good to see.

“You’ve got to have that relationship where you’re willing to share and be open – and know that if you share some of your tough stuff, other people are going to respect that, and not use it against you. That’s absolutely fundamental to the Charter’s success.”


Will the Charter outlast the rebuild? It’s certainly something they’re working on.

“It’s always been the intention to have a lasting legacy, but we know that WorkSafe won’t continue to fund us ad infinitum, so we’ll have to become fully self-funding.

“Part of the legacy we want is to be able to say to others: “Look, here’s the framework we developed, and some ideas. How can we support you to implement them?”

“But in the end it doesn’t matter whether people use this model or another one, so long as they do something to drive a unified approach that involves the people doing the job, the government, unions and industry leaders.

“If it’s going to work it’s got to have that cohesiveness.”


Last stop of the day is back in the suburbs, at the premises of residential builder Enterprise Homes, where general manager Rob Sloan has been involved with the Charter “since day dot”.

He’s a key member of the steering committee, and chaired the leadership working group until it amalgamated with two other subcommittees to form a new working committee. Chair of this committee, SCIRT executive general manager Ian Campbell, has come to share the discussion.

For Sloan, the Charter journey began when he was invited to represent the residential sector at one of the early meetings.

“It was mostly big corporates at the start, but that didn’t really matter because we were all there for the same ideal,” he says.

Campbell, seconded to the Stronger Christchurch Infrastructure Rebuild Team from a civil engineering company in 2011, is also a Charter pioneer. His SCIRT role is coming to an end, but his commitment to the Charter remains strong.

“It’s given the industry an opportunity to collaborate and set its own standards, so we’re not always being told what to do by the regulator,” he says. “It’s about standing up, taking responsibility for health and safety, and helping each other do it.”

Unlike SCIRT, the Charter could not make H&S practices mandatory, but Campbell says the infrastructure rebuild benefited even from the voluntary regime.

“It meant that we weren’t the lone voice, or the place where nobody wanted to work because the standards were too high.

“If what we were imposing wasn’t what they were required to follow elsewhere it would have diluted the impact, so the Charter was very complementary for us.”

There have been some unexpected benefits within the building sector, too, in providing a forum for Master Builders and Certified Builders to get together.

“Getting these two groups together is unheard of,” says Sloan, “but when the Charter hosted a residential builders’ breakfast we asked both groups to own the event as far as getting their members along.

“We got two or three hundred, sharing a breakfast with the focus on health and safety, which was great. And the Charter was the essence of making that happen.”


Are attitudes to safety also changing?

“Absolutely,” Sloan says. “Ten years ago if you wore hi-viz, ear muffs, or a hard hat on a residential site you were called a bit of a dork. But now if you don’t you’re a dork. People are getting it, which is good.”

But how do organisations with no history of health and safety get to grips with the ten commitments?

“They’re more a road map than a set of commandments,” Campbell says, and they help guide people with no experience of health and safety where to start. New Charter signatories are invited to do a self-assessment questionnaire covering the ten areas. The results help indicate what they should be doing and a benchmark against which they can measure themselves.

The self-assessment tool also drives continuous improvement, he says.

“I would challenge any company to do the self-assessment and come out with 100%. There will always be something to work on, and that’s the beauty of it – it keeps you moving to the next level.”


With both SCIRT and Safe Rebuild Canterbury winding up, it’s clear that Christchurch is changing, and the Charter team is determined to change with it.

It’s likely the word “Rebuild” will soon be dropped, but the structure is also under review. At the moment WorkSafe provides a secretariat and, in tandem with ACC, about half the funding. The rest is levied from signatories, on a sliding scale that gives free access to organisations with fewer than ten staff.

“Effectively the bigger companies heavily subsidise the Charter, but that reflects our desire to bring the SMEs up to speed,” Campbell says.

Funding is guaranteed for at least another year but beyond that there is talk of becoming an incorporated society. The details remain hazy, but it’s clear that no one is ready to call time on the project yet.

Do they see it having a future beyond Christchurch?

“We’d love to see it not photocopied, but emulated,” Sloan says. “The model won’t be exactly the same, but there’s some really good stuff here that could be adapted and used.”

Interest is growing, he says, with business groups from other areas inviting him to speak, and the website now getting more hits from Auckland than from Canterbury.

“I’ll certainly be encouraging people to look at what we’ve done,” Campbell says. “We’ve put a lot of time and effort into developing our collateral, which means other people don’t have to. They can have ours.”

Without the earthquake, he says, the Charter would never have happened, but that doesn’t mean that it will take a disaster to get others on board.

“The lesson for the rest of the country is a good one – where there’s a will you can actually achieve quite a lot if you use these sorts of models. If people dealing with an earthquake could find the time to make this happen, you can do it anywhere in the country. There’s no excuse.”

It’s been a good trip. And I think I have found my answers.

Charter’s origins

The Charter concept originated among a small group of Christchurch business leaders who, in late 2012, joined forces with MBIE’s then-head of occupational health and safety Lesley Haines, to find a way to give the city’s rebuild a strong safety focus.

The first Charter signing ceremony took place in July 2013, with the 51 participants – including civil and commercial construction corporations, insurers, the CTU and government agencies – pledging to work together in all matters pertaining to health and safety, and to adopt a set of 10 safety commitments to shape the way work was carried out on all their sites.

There are now some 350 signatories, and a large group of endorsees, which includes local and central government agencies, NGOs, and industry organisations.

WorkSafe and ACC provide about half the funding, with the rest coming from member levies.

WorkSafe also provides administrative support and Craig Sengelow, WorkSafe’s manager Christchurch rebuild health and safety programme, is on the steering committee.

The Charter has developed a range of assessment tools, for use by organisations and leaders at all levels, as well as toolbox talks, posters and other resources, most of which are available on its website

Both the Forest Industry Safety Council (FISC) and the Agricultural Leaders’ Health and Safety Action Group have been influenced by the Charter model.

Further thoughts


The whole drive around health and safety was created by the project managers of the big companies. They said you have to be doing stuff around health and safety, and that brought the change – the fact that there were people at the top who had the ability to say “You have to”.

In that environment Libi and I could come in and say: yeah you have to, but here’s how we can help you do it, and it doesn’t have to be a big issue.

We want to make what you’ve got better, simpler, and more user-friendly. And yes, you might need to change this bit, but it doesn’t mean you have to start from scratch.

Once you start having those conversations with people it’s easier to get them signed up to the Charter – and when they sign up it just spurs them on in making change.”


The key learning for us from the Charter has been the need for collaboration – just getting people together to discuss things and reach agreement on basic principles. And to win people’s trust by having good communication: demonstrating that you are actually listening and taking on board their feedback.

It’s unfortunate that sometimes it takes crisis to get a call to action, but having seen the benefits of working collaboratively, I think we can say to other industries: Don’t wait for a crisis. These are the positive things you can be doing in your businesses right now.


My opinion is that construction has changed. Between when I went in, in 2012, and when I left EQC at the beginning of 2016, I think there had been a lot of change.

There is still a long way to go, but the industry in Canterbury can congratulate itself [on what’s been achieved], and the Charter has really assisted with that change, getting people off the ground. I think it’s made a tremendous difference.


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