The creation of a stand-alone Crown agent was a key recommendation of the Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy. The Government has now announced that it will create this agency, and that according to new Labour Minister Simon Bridges; “The new agency will have a dedicated focus on health and safety and underlines the Government’s strong commitment to addressing New Zealand’s workplace fatality and serious injury rates,”
The new Crown agent will enforce workplace health and safety regulations and work with employers and employees to promote and embed good health and safety practices. “Today’s announcement is a significant step in the Government’s workplace health and safety reform programme. It will sit alongside the work of the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety which is due to report back at the end of April,” Mr Bridges says. The workplace health and safety functions currently sitting within the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment will transfer to the new agency, which is expected to be in place by December.
In our view
The burning question is whether a separate agency will make any difference. The legal obligations to ensure that the workplace is safe are entrenched, and the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 is a comprehensive piece of health and safety legislation.
The issue has not been that the obligations do not exist, but whether the government agency tasked with policing compliance is sufficiently resourced to ensure that employers are taking adequate steps to ensure health and safety. All health and safety legislation, including the Maritime Transport Act 1994 and the Civil Aviation Act 1990 places the primary onus for health and safety on the employer or operator (who is usually the employer).
Health and safety always has a cost and, as a consequence, there is always an economic incentive to take short cuts or take compliance risks in favour of production.
What this means is that health and safety legislation is only as good as the ability of the agency to ensure the obligations are being met by monitoring and enforcement, and monitoring and enforcement are only possible if the agency is fully resourced.
A new agency is unlikely to provide any health and safety magic. The real question is will it be sufficiently resourced to ensure the legislation is complied with?