Today is International Workers’ Memorial day, commemorating employees and contractors killed in the course of performing their jobs. In New Zealand, for the year 2013, 51 people lost their lives at work, and many more were seriously injured. It is an opportune moment to reflect on where we are at with workplace health and safety, and where we are heading.
In November 2010 the Pike River disaster brought health and safety in the workplace to everyone’s attention, in the most horrible way. With 29 deaths, it was for many a real wake-up call, and a very sobering reminder of why safety matters. Following the tragedy, a Royal Commission recommended numerous changes to both the mining industry, and New Zealand’s wider health and safety framework.
In June 2012, an Independent Taskforce was convened to consider whether New Zealand’s Health and Safety system was ‘fit for purpose’ and recommend improvements. The Taskforce reported back in April 2013, recommending sweeping changes, across regulatory and legislative aspects of health and safety. The Government then released “Working Safer: a blueprint for health and safety at work” – promising to implement many of the Royal Commission and the Independent Taskforce’s recommendations.
Since then, we have seen the introduction of WorkSafe New Zealand, a stand-alone agency that started operations on 16 December 2013. It regulates and enforces workplace health and safety and energy and gas safety.
We have also seen, in March this year, the introduction of the Health and Safety Reform Bill. This Bill is designed to replace the current Act, which came into force in 1992, and which many say has passed its use-by date.
The Health and Safety Reform Bill will not be on Parliament’s agenda again until after the election. However, it has cross-party support, is expected to pass, and then come into force in 2015.
Highlights of the Reform Bill include:
- The primary duty of ensuring, so far as is practicable, the safety of workers, will be on Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) – a wider definition than the current focus on employers.
- Directors will have ‘due diligence’ obligations to ensure that the PCBU complies with its duties, and separate obligations to understand hazards in their business, and ensure that systems (and resources) are available to deal with the hazards.
- Further duties for PCBUs that design, manufacture, import and install plant to ensure that the plant is safe for use in a workplace.
- A ‘tiered’ system of offences, with the worst offenders facing up to 5 years’ imprisonment
- Maximum fines increasing sharply from a current maximum of $500,000 to now $3 million.
Businesses (and especially directors) should take the opportunity to get their systems in order before the new legislation comes into effect. We can help you understand your obligations and whether your business will need to change its ways.