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Workers’ Memorial Day (April 28)
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Workers’ Memorial Day (April 28)

28 April 2014

WorkSafe New Zealand Chief Executive, Gordon MacDonald

This year, dozens of families will have to face the future without one of their loved ones as a result of a workplace fatality if our health and safety performance as a nation stays true to statistical averages.

Last year 51 families went through the torment of one of their members leaving for work and never coming home.

No more. This senseless waste of good lives (not to forget the hundreds of serious injuries that happen each year) must be stopped.

WorkSafe New Zealand has been created, in part, to lead the nation to at least a 25% reduction in these rates by 2020 – just six years away. We have a strong team in WorkSafe NZ, but we cannot achieve the step change required alone.

I am concerned that there are too many, in too many sectors, who appear to have an unhealthy automatic turning to the regulator to ‘fix the problem’. This is often reflected in the media focus – a fatality occurs and the first call is to the regulator. The first call should actually be to the company involved and the first question should be: “How and why did your health and safety system fail?”

That should be the businesses first question as well. The responsibility to keep workers safe extends from the work floor to the boardroom.

Relying solely on the regulator to fix the problem is an ‘ambulance at the bottom of the cliff’ approach. We must examine what happened leading up to the event. What didn’t work properly and what can be done to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

WorkSafe New Zealand of course has an important part to play. We will ramp up education and engagement with workplaces to ensure they have the right information to build safety systems. We will continue to target high risk sectors. And we will enforce compliance where necessary to prevent serious harm and to hold people accountable. We will gather and analyse information about what’s happening in workplaces so that management and workers can make better decisions about health and safety.

There will be new health and safety law in place next year which will further clarify responsibilities for everyone in the workplace health and safety chain.

These are all (to use a marketing phrase) “push” actions from the regulator to those to be regulated. They are a critical element of the change we all must strive to achieve.

They will not be enough on their own, unfortunately, to bring down the death toll which is proportionately four times that of the UK and twice that of Australia, and they certainly will not be enough alone to achieve the objective of bringing the rates down by 25% by 2020.

We need a culture change in how we view and implement workplace health and safety in New Zealand if we are to meet the target.

There are 400,000 workplaces in New Zealand and to expect that our inspectors can be in every one of them is simply unrealistic - and should not be necessary.

To get some perspective on culture change and the difficulties in making it happen, you need only look at the campaigns run by the New Zealand Transport Agency on drink driving and wider road safety. Millions of dollars have been spent each year over more than a decade to achieve the advances we’ve seen. Much the same can be said of the stop smoking campaign. They’ve achieved success and considerable social and economic good has flowed from their success.

We can do the same for health and safety in the workplace. But we don’t have a decade to reach our targets – we have only six years, and while WorkSafe NZ has reordered its operations, prioritised the sectors where we know we can make the biggest difference, and is working closely with partner agencies and influencers, we need levels of commitment and action that have not even been contemplated previously.

It is WorkSafe NZ’s responsibility to galvanise the plans, the commitments, the implementation, the measuring and monitoring and where necessary, the enforcement which will lead New Zealand into a new era. But it is business owners, employers, national bodies, worker representatives and workers who have to be part of creating a system where workplace health and safety is what you do all the time - even when the regulator’s not knocking on the door.


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