New Zealand’s poor record for workplace deaths and injuries has been showing major signs of improvement.
But the regulator in charge of workplace safety says that after mighty efforts to change their culture, industries may be slipping back to their old ways.
„People have done the things that are easy to do relatively quickly,” Worksafe’s chief executive Nicole Rosie says.
„The real challenge now becomes to get the more enduring change which is all about culture, making proper choices about moving to automation or making more substantial changes to the risks that are actually killing New Zealanders.”
In the years since Worksafe was established in 2013 – after the Pike River disaster – rates of workplace deaths had been falling.
By 2015, fatalities were down by a third and serious injuries were down 29 per cent. Lesser injuries had started to track down also.
But in 2016 those gains started reversing. Fifty people died in a workplace accident or in a workplace’s care and last year was the same, due largely to a surge in forestry and logistics accidents.
Worksafe is hoping that’s just a blip. New Zealand has a goal: a 25 per cent reduction in workplace fatalities and serious injuries by 2020, and so far this year there’s been 18 deaths, half the usual number.
Two years ago, new health and safety reforms came into force. Penalties were increased and it became easier to prosecute directors, not just their companies.
Directors now had to do their own due diligence of workplace hazards – not just outsource them. But the new law makes everyone accountable to some extent for hazards they see around them.
However, Worksafe’s annual surveys of company attitudes to health and safety has found complacency is creeping back.
„In general New Zealand is seeing a stagnation of attitudes towards health and safety, which is concerning,” Rosie says.
„The real risk is, you think you’ve made the change and you take your eye off the ball.”
The three worst sectors for workplace deaths are agriculture, construction and forestry, but there’s real concern about the transportation, logistics and warehousing sector as well. An industry which has an average of three to five had up to 28 deaths last year.
A booming economy has also brought a large number of new staff in the workplace, particularly in construction, who need to learn the safety rules.
„We’ve had quite good export growth in all of our priority sectors: forestry, agriculture, manufacturing, construction …which means there’s increased numbers of immigrant workers, and casual workers.”
And then there’s the deaths that don’t grab instant headlines. Workplace-related diseases like asbestosis, silicosis, chemical-related illness and cardiac conditions from working long hours.
It’s early days on gathering data on these deaths, but conservative estimates indicate these are killing between 600 and 900 workers a year.
Asbestosis exposure is a particular focus of Worksafe’s data gathering work. It’s thought to kill 18 people per 100,000 workers a year in New Zealand, compared to agriculture which has a rolling average of 13. Normal workplaces have a death rate of 2.1.
Bullying and sexual harassment is also on Worksafe’s radar. Some countries, but not New Zealand at present, have estimates for work-related suicide.
Many people lash out at the Government every time someone dies on the job. Rosie, who comes from a business background, thinks that’s misplaced.
„The legislation is absolutely clear that the responsibility sits with the party creating the risk.”
New Zealand’s „never going to regulate” its way to good health and safety, she adds.
„It would take thousands and thousands of inspectors for 400,000 businesses. So we have to do it by businesses understanding this is good for business.
Having said that, earlier this year the Government called for submissions on a draft health and safety strategy for the next 10 years.
The review was written into the new law to check on how the various parties involved – workers, unions, regulators and other agencies like ACC, Civil Aviation and Maritime Safety – were working together.
Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said the review would look at all types of significant harm at work, including mental health.
He also wanted to look at better outcomes for Māori, „and other workers at greater risk who are over represented in injury statistics and high-risk sectors” or in „remote or precarious employment”.
Although agriculture is arguably the worst sector for deaths, the construction industry is also a poor performer.
Eight construction workers lost their life last year, and over the past seven years, 37 people have died.
Andrew Confait has been a health and safety manager within construction for more than 20 years.
Currently group manager of customer strategy and support at Site Safe NZ, he was previously H&S manager for Hawkins Construction.
While at Hawkins, he used to keep pictures of people he had known who had been killed on the job on the wall of his office. It served as a reminder to him and to others why he was there.
Confait says today’s construction sector leaders have a very different attitude towards health and safety than their predecessors.
It used to be an „add on”, a nice to have, something not costed in for. „I think there was an acceptance, if you like, that there would always be collateral in our sector.”
„And I think one of the shifts in terms of maturity is that, it’s unacceptable to have collateral in our industry.”
The biggest change? A greater focus on the workers and more forward planning.
„Safety’s not a ticker box exercise, it is intrinsic in everything that we do. So one of the things we can improve on is getting the people who are actually building the buildings involved in the planning stage early … so they’re prepared, they’ve got the right equipment to do the job.
„I think we’ve got to get into the habit of questioning and if we’re questioning then we can collectively find solutions.
„If we’re undertaking a task that isn’t fit for purpose in terms of safety outcomes, we’ve got to be brave enough to stop, not to think that if we don’t do the job on time and on budget…”
In the past 12 months, forestry accidents have claimed eight lives.
Foresters are commonly hit by falling trees. But during the summer months, there was an rise in serious incidents where forestry machinery lost stability, as the industry becomes increasingly automated.
Forestry Owners Association technical manager Glen Mackie said moves to take workers off of slopes and replace them with machines were undoubtedly making the industry safer.
„Planting on steep slopes isn’t the issue, the issue is the subsequent harvesting that happens on those hills some 20 years later.”
Mackie said the machines would be increasingly operated remotely, aided by existing radar, remote sensing, and satellite technology that made it possible to „figure out where every tree is to the centimetre”.
But Mackie said it was „fair to say” there would always be a demand for some of the industry’s most dangerous work.
„There will always be difficult areas to get to and there will always be a need for a man with a chainsaw on a slope.”
Forest Industry Safety Council national safety director Fiona Ewing said increased mechanisation removed individuals from high risk tasks but it also introduced new safety risks.
Ewing said health risks came with changing physical roles to sedentary ones.
„There’s also a degree of stress involved in operating these machines and we’ve had reports of people feeling isolated from their work mates.”