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Safeguard Magazine

Conference: Out of the park

PETER BATEMAN reports on some of the key messages from the Safeguard National Health and Safety Conference 2015.

Last year’s eighth Safeguard conference set a new attendance record. This year’s event obliterated it, with well over 500 people present. We believe it is the largest health and safety conference ever staged in New Zealand – we asked a few wise old heads who were present, and none of them could recall a bigger one.

The event’s informal motto – professionally relaxed – was adopted enthusiastically by MC David Nottage, who ran the show with wit and eccentricity. One speaker, an accountant by trade, commented quietly that it was nothing like an accountancy conference. We’ll take that as a compliment.

Australian keynote speaker Dr Kirstin Ferguson – surely the only person in the world to have been a company chief executive, to be a non-executive director on multiple boards, and to have a PhD in workplace safety governance – revealed to the conference the significance to her of the number five. It was, she said, the number of fatalities she has been informed of as a company director, and it was also the age of the first of these five people. As health and safety professionals, she said, “you’d be surprised at the power you have, as the experts, to influence and drive boardroom behaviour”.

Z Energy’s Julie Rea said the company’s board had a health and safety subcommittee of three people, which met immediately before the two-monthly meeting of the full board – and that most other board members attended it anyway. “Listen to the weak signals,” she advised, “and find out what is really going on.”

WorkSafe’s Sue Petricevic outlined the regulator’s approach to the forthcoming Health and Safety at Work Act, and that it will strengthen worker participation. The new legislation’s risk-based approach, she said, will lead to sustainable change.

Her partner on the podium, Kensington Swan’s Grant Nicholson, picked up on the news which had emerged from Parliament the previous day – that the select committee considering the new legislation had pushed back its reporting timetable by another two months, apparently to accommodate concern among some National Party caucus members about small business coverage and worker participation. “I’m with Helen Kelly on not weakening worker participation,” he told the conference.

WorkSafe’s chief executive Gordon MacDonald said he would spare the audience from listening to him “drone on” for 40 minutes and would instead participate in a panel discussion – but before doing so he made two key points: that WorkSafe’s dutyholder review process was going well and had received positive feedback from companies invited to do it; and that the launch of the Forest Industry Safety Council the previous evening was a step on the journey from the industry’s “pariah” status in 2013, a year in which there were ten forestry worker deaths. “We see an industry which took some pushing to get to the point of saying yes, this is our problem, and we will be part of finding a solution.”

Radio host Duncan Garner then took over the podium to conduct a robust panel discussion with Gordon MacDonald, Julie Rea and the EPMU’s Rachel Mackintosh, who referred to the lobbying of National Party MPs to reduce the new act’s coverage of small business and to limit the extent of worker participation. “The agriculture sector is putting pressure on the Government. Half of workplace deaths are in agriculture. It beggars belief. And we call on you, the employers in this room, to stand up for worker participation and to support us in our call for it not to be watered down.”

NZ Steel’s Sarah Parkinson and John Lee presented their contractor management case study as a double act at the podium. “I am an engineer,” said Lee, deadpan. “I have no personality, no sense of humour and no social skills.” Funniest quote of the conference? Perhaps, but Parkinson showed she was no slouch in the humour department. “It was death by audit,” she said in reference to an earlier methodology. “In fact in some cases it was murder.”

The NZISM’s Tony Rigg said members had approached him in the previous 24 hours over the prospect of the new legislation being diluted. “If Cabinet drops the ball, the memory of the 29 dead at Pike River will be soured.” The Cabinet, he said, had the responsibility to protect all New Zealanders. “Our expectation is that the Government will keep its promise, show leadership, and not bow down to sectors.”

Keynote speaker James Barnes, from Park Health and Safety Partnership in the UK, urged the conference to do as the London Olympic Development Authority did, and to great health like safety. “It’s about moving away from [an emphasis on] treatment, to focus on identifying and managing the health risks.” The three pillars, he said, are the three Ws – Workplace, Worker, Wellbeing – where the workplace is at the centre, with a focus on exposure prevention.

Michael Woodhouse, Minister of Workplace Relations and Safety, said the Government remained committed to its goal of a 25% reduction in work-related fatalities and serious injuries by 2020, and that the new legislation would make a significant contribution. He acknowledged the rumours of lobbying that had emerged in the 24 hours before the conference and addressed them. “My goal is to make sure that there’s clear understanding about expectations of health and safety in the workplace, and that workers will participate, commensurate with the size of the organisation and the risks faced.”

Workbase’s Katherine Percy spoke about the ageing workforce, citing the movie Lethal Weapon, and Danny Glover’s catchphrase “I’m too old for this shit”. She made a plea for employers to accommodate older workers, who bring huge value but can be reluctant to disclose health issues. “Ageing is normal, but it isn’t normalised within many workplaces.”

Bernard McIlhone from SafeRebuild Canterbury said that some outside the region had the perception that the rebuild is nearly over, whereas it was only one-third of the way through. For the residential sector he said there was three more years of solid work, and it would be higher risk because the deconstruction phase was drawing to a close, meaning residential builders would no longer be under the oversight of large operators such as Fletcher EQR and EQC. “The greatest risk is that SMEs revert back to their previous health and safety behaviours.”

His colleague Jo Duffy described the training process, saying that the goal was to persuade workers that health and safety was something they should look to be actively involved in. In other words, health and safety isn’t something done to them.

ACC’s Sid Miller acknowledged the corporation needs to be more collaborative, as it had sometimes carried out injury prevention interventions largely in isolation. “We need to create tools that get to you and can be used widely, that you can adapt to your workplaces. Rather than wait for the perfect solution, we want to get them into your hands and get your feedback so we can adapt them.”

Sean Kelly, CFO of Hubbard Foods, talked about the evolution of the company’s wellbeing and community engagement programme, and how the two were inextricably linked by health statistics. “If you live in our community you have a 50% probability of premature death.” That data, he said, “led us to wellness, and the enormous, overwhelming breadth of opportunity to do something.”

The conference concluded with Nigel Latta patrolling the stage talking non-stop about the hazards he faced in the making of the TV series Nigel Latta Blows Stuff Up. Seems he was up for everything the producers suggested, except for one: being crash-tackled on camera by a 14-year-old rugby player. He took one look at the young man, he told the audience, and decided that Danny Glover had it right after all.


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