Skip to Content, Skip to Navigation

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

Private to public

Six months into the role, the chief executive of WorkSafe New Zealand talks to PETER BATEMAN about pain, risk, maturity, and people who have influenced her. She even slips in a recruiting plug.

Let’s get the firsts out of the way. Nicole Rosie is the first woman to lead the health and safety regulator and the first person from the private sector to do so. She also studied at Harvard and graduated with a Masters in public health.

But it was an experience which stymied her early career progress that perhaps first set her on the journey to the regulator’s top job.

It was while playing tennis for her university that she suffered a major injury which turned into a chronic pain syndrome. “It gave me a personal experience of just how debilitating serious chronic pain can be,” she tells me at WorkSafe’s head office in Wellington.

The situation became so serious she quit her first job out of university – as a lawyer for a major legal firm – and sought treatment at a pain clinic, where she met many other chronic pain patients. “It gave me an interest in how the system itself can create disability, and also just how little support many people got.”

Recovered, she joined ACC in Auckland as a case and claims manager – at the height of the RSI/OOS “epidemic” – and gained further insight into how the grey area of medicine and health fits into a regulatory regime which of necessity is relatively black and white.


It’s worth taking a further look at her CV because it helps signal where she is coming from and the kind of thinking she brings to the regulator.

Post-ACC she moved on to Fletcher Forests and set up their self-insurance programme during the brief period in the late 90s when ACC was partially privatised. She also worked with the team at the company’s Waipa sawmill to turn around its health and safety performance, her first H&S management role.

She and her husband moved to Queensland for a year while he did a masters degree and she worked for WorkCover, then it was her turn to return to academia – this time to Harvard, where she completed a Masters in public health looking at the medico-legal management of overuse conditions.

Back in New Zealand her corporate career took off: seven years in the transport sector (TranzRail/Toll/KiwiRail), a year with Vector, and most recently five years with Fonterra, the first three as global head of health and safety, the last two on major business transformation projects. Whew. That’s quite some CV. But where is the common thread?

“From very early on I’ve been interested in how we reduce harm and enable people to do what they want to do,” she tells me. “It just naturally led into health and safety. I’m a passionate New Zealander and I care about people and how to make our work environments and our country great. That’s why I’m here.”


In her assessment she brings three private sector insights to the job: a deep knowledge of business drivers, experience of the challenge of meeting regulatory requirements while trying to run a profitable business, and a broad understanding of New Zealand’s high-risk industry sectors.

“I have stood in the shoes of those who we are asking to make a change.

“We aren’t going to regulate our way to best practice health and safety. We are only going to get there if we capture hearts and minds: that people think it’s the right thing to do, and that it is good for business.”

The trick, she says, is to show how both factors complement each other.

“From very early on I’ve been interested in how we reduce harm and enable people to do what they want to do,” she tells me. “It just naturally led into health and safety., and that caring for people and managing risk well produces a great organisation.”


Rosie has written in these pages [last issue page 64] about her surprise at encountering business leaders with above average H&S records who were nevertheless unable to articulate the critical risks facing their people. They could happily point to declining TRIFR graphs but often hadn’t grasped they could at any moment be blind-sided by a catastrophic failure they had never contemplated.

It’s a matter of maturity, she says. Starting out, people focus on the hazards and injuries they can easily see. That’s where everyone starts, and where most SMEs remain.

“As you become larger and more sophisticated you realise that often the things that can most damage your business – in H&S and financially – are not the things you can see.”

New Zealand, she says, is some years behind the rest of the world in this kind of maturity, and that is partly because we haven’t had the scale of business which would drive this kind of more sophisticated analysis – though this is starting to change. Also, she concedes, H&S hasn’t been a high priority for many businesses, particularly for SMEs which tend to deal only with obvious hazards and then just get on with the job.

She cites a four-year-old US/Australian study which showed the limitations of Heinrich’s now discredited triangle – discredited not for getting the numbers wrong, but for people drawing false conclusions from it. That is, Heinrich’s triangle has focused attention on LTIs and minor injuries, in the erroneous belief that minimising minor injuries would somehow minimise fatalities and serious injuries. Instead, the study showed that businesses should focus on the 10 to 30% of incidents which could have resulted in death or serious injury, and do risk analysis around those.

“At Fonterra we had started to realise that independently, because we realised there was a lot of stuff going on that wasn’t coming through the triangle and that we just weren’t aware of.”


Taking a risk-oriented view of their business helps organisations move up through the maturity levels, she says – and it’s not just about health and safety. “It’s looking at your business and all the things that can significantly impact your people and your customers. Once you start focusing on your critical risks and your key controls it becomes really simple.”

This seems like a good time to mention the words of Gordon MacDonald, who told me last year the key challenge for his successor – unknown at the time – would be to build on the success WorkSafe had in raising awareness by ensuring that awareness was translated into actions.

Rosie agrees, and immediately draws an analogy between forestry and quad bikes. Four or five years back the forestry sector dealt with the dangers of felling through more training, better PPE, and “telling the guys to be more focused” – low-end administrative controls to deal with an inherently unsafe activity.

Now, she says, the sector has realised the way forward is to eliminate people from exposure to felling as far as possible, to innovate, and to find solutions to move up the hierarchy of risk controls to reduce risk, improve productivity, create sustainability, and to reduce environmental impacts.

So, what’s the connection with quad bikes? She reckons that in farming, we are in the same place as forestry was five years back: we focus on better training, wearing helmets and so on, even though we know it might mitigate some harm but won’t sustainably reduce it.

“The point where the agriculture industry starts to go: we need to innovate, whether that is side-by-sides, or reducing the amount of high risk quad bike activity, or ways to reduce risks on the bikes themselves – that’s where you start to get significant change in your risk profile.”

She wants the agriculture sector to mature to the stage where it is looking at those types of higher order risk controls and how to innovate to achieve them “because that would drive farmers to find an economic alternative solution far more rapidly than, potentially, WorkSafe putting in a training programme or enforcing helmets on quad bikes.”


Pushing my luck, I invite her to conduct an impromptu SWOT analysis on WorkSafe: its main strength, weakness, opportunity, and threat. She’s up for it, and immediately identifies as a strength the capability of the agency’s people and their useful combination of experience and youthful energy. Another is the strength of its relationships with industry, with a hat-tip to her predecessor for his work in that area.

“In quite a short time WorkSafe has built a strong brand and strong relationships and is working with industry around key risks. Without a doubt that is a strength.”

Expecting a chief executive to concede any organisational weakness is a big ask, but she’s willing to say consistency is the biggest concern she has heard from industry, and it doesn’t come as a surprise.

“It’s one of the most challenging things to execute on, given that every scenario you deal with is different. It will continue to be a challenge. We need to be transparent, open and consistent.”

So, what is WorkSafe’s chief opportunity? In her view it is momentum – that is, the country is still early in its H&S maturity journey but we have momentum and WorkSafe has the chance to build on that.

“That’s the real opportunity for New Zealand, because [once we reach] the point when businesses realise this makes good business sense, that’s the point the regulator does not have to act in terms of enforcement, and the system maintains its own improvement. That’s the panacea: that the system itself creates continuous improvement.”

It sounds great, so what is the biggest threat? That the converse is true: that business still thinks of H&S as a compliance thing – that the work is done once all the boxes have been ticked – and shifts its attention elsewhere. Result? We revert back to where we were five years ago.

“That is a threat not only to increasing death and harm, but also a significant economic threat in a competitive global market where things like how you manage risk and how you care for people are going to be critical.”


Up to now we have talked largely about safety, but what about the health side of the equation – an area largely neglected by WorkSafe’s predecessors for many years. Rosie cites best estimates of 600 to 900 deaths a year from work exposures causing ill health, and says all inspectors are required to look at hazardous substances management and exposures to health risks when on site visits.

Further, she says, a renewed business focus on risk enables means these less visible exposures are more likely to be properly considered. But she is concerned that when businesses talk of health they often link it to wellness programmes: smoking cessation, diabetes awareness and so on. No doubt these are important, she says, but they get the cart before the horse.

“We are talking about sustained exposures to hazardous substances that lead to cancers and lung diseases and are quite catastrophic for the individual. We would like business to really stand back and ask: what chemicals do we use? What confined spaces are people working in?”

She is also well aware health extends beyond chemicals, dusts and noise, and that the ways people are asked to carry out their work can also have severe negative health consequences – the truck driver doing long haul, the bus driver unable to go to the toilet, the possibility of bullying and other mental harm.

Before I know it she’s sketched out a bow-tie diagram with driving risks and their controls outlined. This is no ordinary bureaucrat.


We discuss getting workers involved in health and safety because I know she’s big on this. The evidence to support worker participation, she says, is overwhelming; it forms one of the three essential elements for good health and safety, the other two being leadership and culture/systems. It’s also the one that boards and executive team members seem to struggle with, she adds, particularly in how to monitor that worker involvement really is happening and is effective.

The key, she says, is to realise that no one participation method will suit all businesses, or even all parts of a single business; it all depends on context. That’s one reason why, when inspectors visit a workplace, they always ask to speak to an employee H&S participant or representative: to get a sense of how they are involved in H&S discussions.

“When I talk to executives or boards I tell them participation is as important as risk and I ask how are they getting reports on participation and know it is working effectively?”

She suggests one way is to have critical risks owned and led by employees who are invited to speak to the board about them. “There’s no question having a front line person leading a critical risk panel and then reporting to a board is one way a governance group can be quite close to where the action is.”


Getting people on board with H&S is critical, which raises an obvious question: who has inspired or influenced her approach to health and safety? The response is swift – her mother, who has recently been acknowledged for her services to education and in supporting underprivileged children in Gisborne, and has always been focused on “the end game”, in this case improved outcomes for children.

“If you have an end game you can do amazing things. Changes in the world are created by people who see you can do things differently and are not restricted by existing frameworks.”

She cites two others, the first being her first boss at Fonterra, Jennifer Kerr, who she says was single-mindedly focused on caring for people and creating a platform for change at leadership level.

“She was really good on how values create a platform for change.”

Further back, she cites the head of Toll, David Jackson, as someone with a great ability to connect with people and show them he cared. The lesson? That culture is less about systems and processes and more about intention, values, how you connect with people in a way which is meaningful to them.

“If you can connect on that personal level you can change anything. People really connected with him – a bit like Gordon really. David created great loyalty.”


We finish by discussing success and how you know if you’ve achieved it.

“Success is what happens after you leave. Jennifer left a huge legacy at Fonterra in terms of its platform for health and safety. My mother left a huge legacy for vulnerable children sustained well beyond her.

“That to me is true leadership – that improvement is sustained when you are no longer there. That’s when you know you have connected with people.”

One last cheeky question: would she recommend WorkSafe as a place to work? She snorts with laughter. Of course she would! But her reasoning suggests an ambitious agenda and an invitation to be part of it.

Leadership, she explains, is about building leaders in a values-based organisation that cares for its people. Not that WorkSafe is necessarily there yet – but that is the goal.

“We want to be exemplars of what we talk to industry about creating in workplaces. I think this will become a great place to work, if it’s not already.”


comments powered by Disqus

From Safeguard Magazine

Table of Contents