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Safeguard Magazine

Retail: employers’ perspective

The retail sector is complex due to the variety of work environments and the high numbers of people exposed to risks, says SCOTT FISHER.

Health and safety is a big issue for the retail sector. About 209,000 people work in retail in New Zealand. The workforce is diverse, and the customer base even more so. There’s also a range of work environments with different needs: the health and safety needs of a small single-store operation will vary markedly from those of a national chain with distribution centres around the country.

As in every other sector, retailers need to be looking at all aspects of their businesses: buildings, fitout, equipment, and stock. But unlike most other sectors, retailers also need to think carefully about protecting their employees and customers from criminals. Crime is rife across the retail sector, and Retail NZ research suggests that, over time, the perpetrators have become more brazen and more aggressive. Staff (and potentially other customers) are sometimes at risk of personal injury or – as we saw recently – even death. In this context, it’s important for retailers to be thinking about the wellbeing of their people as well as their physical safety, providing support where required.


There are large numbers of part-time employees in the retail sector, and parts of the sector operate with shifts close to 24/7. There are also lots of casual and contract employees, especially at peak times like Christmas. While this creates opportunities for those who want flexible working arrangements, it makes it even more challenging to keep on top of H&S issues.

One of the challenges for the sector is that many retail businesses are very small. There are about 27,000 retail businesses in New Zealand, including about 16,500 single-store enterprises. Most retail owners don’t have the capacity or the budget to invest in a dedicated health and safety manager or consultant. However, it is critical that business owners focus on the issue and take steps to keep their people (and their customers) safe.


It’s been two years since the new HSW Act came into force and to some extent, retailers are still getting their heads around it. The act creates a one-size-fits-all regime which businesses are expected to tailor to their own circumstances. While the flexibility in the law has advantages, it does make it hard for smaller businesses to understand what they need to do. There is a world of difference in the risks and dangers of an underground coal mine compared to a small soap shop in a suburban mall – but retailers still have the same obligations to keep their people safe.


We will often receive an SOS call from a member who has no idea where to start with health and safety. Often, a member will ask us for templates so they can meet their health and safety obligations. We explain that having some templated policies on the shelf doesn’t mean they are complying with the law. Instead, we explain that members need to review their own operations, in detail, looking at both the physical location and environment of the store, as well as thinking about employee and customer wellbeing.

We often advise members to pay particular attention to things that can cause trips, falls, cuts and strains. In a retail environment, a focus is often needed on ducting and air conditioning units, shelving, displays, stockrooms and kitchens, as well as having processes in place to manage customer aggression, staff health, and evacuation in the event of a fire or natural disaster.

Creating a culture where retailers – and their employees – are actively considering risks to health, safety and wellbeing, and taking steps to mitigate them, is something that we are working hard on in the sector. However, it is a multi-faceted issue and it takes time. At Retail NZ, we’re helping support our sector through our publications and providing access to our free member advice service.

Scott Fisher is chief executive of Retail NZ.

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