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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Alert24 - Safeguard Update

500 not out

500 not out
Article Type:
Comment & Analysis
Publication Date:
New Zealand

When we realised the 23 February print edition of Safeguard Update would be number 500 we paused to reflect on the changes in health and safety in New Zealand since our first edition appeared in May 1994, only a year after the HSE Act came into force. We decided to consult veterans of the health and safety scene for their views, so we trawled through the first dozen editions and identified people mentioned in those early pages who are still active. We posed them three questions to consider:

  • What has improved in OHS since 1994?
  • What has remained static or gone backwards?
  • What would you have done differently if you’d known then what you know now?

Ross Wilson, who in 1994 was vice-president of the Council of Trade Unions, says OHS has improved in some organisations, particularly the larger corporates, but progress overall has been disappointing, and in some sectors – such as forestry – performance has declined. Also in decline is awareness of occupational health hazards and systems to address them.

“The general duty model introduced by the HSE Act is dependent for success on an active and progressive regulator and strong and participative advocacy by workers at all levels of the system,” he told Safeguard. “The serious failure in this regard was recognised by the Royal Commission and the Taskforce.”

Looking back at what he would have done differently, Wilson says as leader of the CTU he would have advocated more strongly for a tripartite OSH regulatory agency. “I have supported this since the ACOSH Report in the 1980s, but it wasn’t until the Pike River disaster that I gave it priority, and the Royal Commission and the Taskforce (and ultimately the Government) accepted the case I made for it on behalf of the CTU.”

WorkSafe New Zealand, he says, is now demonstrating the value of a “focused and professional” health and safety agency.

Dr Bill Glass, who in a 1994 edition was described as (among other things) chair of the National Asbestos Medical Panel, says there is much more information about OHS available now. Personal protective equipment has become widely accepted, and it is more precise and more comfortable to wear, with fit testing an important step forward. “It is no longer seen as sissy.” There has also been an increase in the number of health and safety manager roles.

On the downside, “there has been a decline in the number of occupational physicians practising in the workplace, occupational health nurses have become an ageing population and their practice hasn’t changed, and occupational hygienists and psychologists are barely visible.” He also laments a decline in government funding of occupational health research.

Would he have done things differently? “Of course! I would have continued to work with enlightened management and worker groups, and with engineers, to put emphasis on solutions.”

Site Safe’s Geoff Wilson, who in 1994 was operations policy manager with OSH, says larger businesses have lifted their ability to operate OHS systems, and there is a developed and growing market for OHS professionals to advise them. Some businesses and industry sectors have taken the lead through trade associations, and via initiatives such as Site Safe and the Canterbury Rebuild Safety Forum. Individual awareness of risk and how to manage it has increased, he says, through inclusion of OHS topics in schools and tertiary institutions, increased trade training, and health and safety rep training courses.

On the downside, he cites the continuing trend away from direct employment and towards work being contracted out, posing greater OHS challenges for both contractors and principals. Awareness of the risks to health posed by noise, asbestos and other long-term exposures has failed to gain traction. “Several attempts have been made to lift capability but most have failed.”

The regulator, he says, “lost its way in the period from 2000 until after Pike River and the establishment of WorkSafe. There have been too many changes of senior personnel, lack of vision, leadership and unclear goals, eg: enforcement or education and marketing?”

As for what he would have done differently, Wilson says he would have focused on providing more solutions and clear standards, particularly for SMEs which make up 80% of NZ business. “To comply with performance-based law such as the HSE Act required much more practical guidance for all levels – workers, supervisors, managers. Unfortunately agencies such as the TEC cut funding for education support in this area.”

He would also have had the regulator follow a strategy that helped it focus on high risk industries, high risk processes, and at-risk worker groups; and would have urged ACC to act more decisively by providing larger incentives for businesses which invested in OHS.

Ian Shepherd, group health and safety manager with Ebert Construction, was working at OSH head office in 1994. Looking back, he recalls the “wave of opportunist individuals” who appeared overnight as health and safety consultants. While some knew their stuff, others just sold manuals, leaving employers none the wiser about how to integrate health and safety principles into their businesses. What has improved, he says, is that many employers have come to understand that OHS is integral to efficient operations, and that they need quality advice, to involve their staff, and to train people.

However, he says health and safety standards in the small business sector have changed little over the intervening 20 years and may even have declined. “Entering business is easy. Price drives everything. Small businesses invest the least in training and [yet] carry out the bulk of high risk work. Record keeping and health monitoring are not priorities. Getting the job done and making a living are.”

He is uneasy that some labour hire companies, and agencies such as WINZ, continue to place people into roles without understanding the level of risk they face, leaving the onus entirely on the business receiving the person to do the right thing.

Thinking back, Shepherd says he would have ensured a wider support base of advisors was set up and trained to help employers transition from a prescriptive OHS regime to a performance-based framework. People who called themselves OHS consultants should have had to be qualified or at least have demonstrable experience.

As for the legislation, he says it should have been introduced as a complete package: act, regulations, codes of practice, and good practice guidelines. This would have eliminated confusion about the meaning of all practicable steps, and would have killed off belief in the so-called “three metre rule” in the construction sector, which he says dated back to a regulation made in 1961.

People Mentioned:
Bill Glass; Geoff Wilson; Ian Shepherd; Ross Wilson
Organisations Mentioned:
Ebert Construction; OSH; Council of Trade Unions; Site Safe
Reference No:

From Alert24 - Safeguard Update

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