WorkSafe’s contribution to the all-of-government response to the COVID-19 pandemic was a key feature of our 2019/2020 performance year. We supported New Zealand through each Alert Level to address this critical health risk. Our work with our partners and stakeholders, businesses, employers and workers will continue into 2020/2021 as part of our core activities.
It is clear that the pandemic will impact New Zealand for some time to come and has created a sense of uncertainty about what the future might hold. The potential impacts for our future work are presented in our Statement of Performance Expectations 2020/2021 (SPE). Throughout the year, we expect that as a result of the pandemic we will need to re-prioritise, re-plan, pause and re-start initiatives and projects, and evolve the way we undertake our core regulatory activities; just as we did this year.
WorkSafe achieved a considerable amount despite of the impact of the pandemic. We contributed to the all-of-government response and delivered our core work. Our staff demonstrated their commitment to their jobs and to supporting health and safety in our workplaces over this challenging time.
WorkSafe was designated as an essential service during Alert Levels 4 and 3, and the April/May 2020 lockdown. This was due to the need to ensure that other essential services were being undertaken in a healthy and safe way; including to prevent the spread of the virus, consistent with the Government’s requirements and advice.
WorkSafe committed senior staff to the five-agency governance group and the steering committee to support the all-of-government COVID-19 response. We placed staff in the Government’s central hub in Wellington and had Customer Service Officers directly supporting the response while working from home.
We aligned our approach with the all-of-government effort, and worked with the Police and other regulatory agencies receiving and responding to notifications of harm, and undertaking workplace assessments. We provided information and advice to Government, to workers and their representatives, and employers, business and sector and industry leadership groups.
Our enforcement activities
In Alert Level 4, notifications to WorkSafe dropped by 31% in comparison to the 2019 work-week average as many workplaces closed. We received 617 notifications and undertook 562 assessments, 94% of those were directly related to COVID-19. There was a significant increase in activity in Alert Level 3, with notifications increasing by 28% and assessments by 79% in comparison to the 2019 work-week average; 92% of our assessments were COVID-19 related. In all cases, enforcement action was reserved for situations where there were clear risks that were not being addressed, and the response from WorkSafe was proportional to the potential for harm to workers and others.
If WorkSafe had been required to sustain the increased Inspectorate effort seen in Alert Level 3 it is clear that our people would have been under extreme pressure, and our focus on other risky workplaces and work practices would have been compromised. The pressure was relieved by the short duration of Alert Level 3, and New Zealanders’ commitment to controlling the spread of the virus.
Our proactive calling campaign
We undertook a proactive calling campaign across Alert Levels 3 and 2. Working alongside the Ministries of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) and Primary Industries (MPI) we reached 8,000 businesses. They were offered support for ensuring a safe return to work, and we ensured that they had a safety plan in place that was developed with the involvement of their workers. Considerable effort was committed by staff across WorkSafe, to support this campaign.
We maintained a strong focus on continued worker engagement, representation and participation as it was important that workers were engaged in the process of putting new safety standards and plans in place.
Our information and advice
Alongside our proactive calling campaign we produced a range of tripartite, online guidance including on the use of Personal Protective Equipment, based on Ministry of Health (MoH) guidelines. WorkSafe also undertook ongoing engagement with more than 30 different industry and sub-industry representative groups. We endorsed 20 industry return-to-work guidance documents through a newly created process.
Our stakeholder engagements during the lockdown enabled us to build new relationships. It has given us reach into new sectors and industries such as the education and hospitality sectors. This was a benefit that WorkSafe will seek to leverage in the future as our work programme allows.
Our early dialogue with sector and industry groups informed our advice to other agencies about industry needs. WorkSafe worked across government, in particular with MoH, MPI and Police, to create a consistent approach to supporting and working with businesses.
Promoting safe work and safe return to work
During the lockdown, WorkSafe promoted electrical and gas safety in the home messages in response to people working from home, with a wide reach and engagement success rate. We issued media releases to support a safe return to work, and provided information to support businesses in developing their safe work plans. We reminded people about the good things about returning to work, and highlighted the negatives, the accidents and injuries we did not want to see return. Our materials provided a model for our overseas counterparts, demonstrating that they were world-class.
Our contribution to the COVID-19 response, and that of our key partners and stakeholders, did result in some of our planned work being stopped or slowed. We were not able to undertake key cross-government meetings, and many of the agencies we work with were also focused on their contribution to the all-of-government response. We have been working with MBIE on the health and safety regulatory reform programme which was impacted by the response, but remains important to the effective functioning of the health and safety system and our work. We are continuing to prioritise this work.
WorkSafe’s key non-government stakeholders, such as sector and industry health and safety groups were, and remain, focused on supporting their sectors, industries and workplaces to recover from the April/May 2020 lockdowns and to minimise the impact of the recession. Some of our planned initiatives with these groups were delayed, such as our work with our Pacific Peoples Responsiveness Advisory Group. Drawing from their insights and expertise, remains a priority for our programme with Pacific Peoples. Work was also delayed in High Hazards and Energy Safety areas, again due to the inability of key partners and stakeholders to come together. WorkSafe is effectively managing the impact of these delays and – as this report demonstrates – the delays did not significantly impact on our performance results.