Time to focus on the Health in OH & S

By Mark Champion, General Manager Advocacy and Industry Relations, EMA

About 1500 metres into a hillside on the West Coast northeast of Greymouth, at 3.44pm on the afternoon of November 19, 2010, a methane explosion, followed by a series of other blasts, took the lives of 29 miners.

The tragedy has forever changed the lives of the families and communities of those miners, but as a result of those deaths there is now a legacy – the tragedy has forever changed the landscape of Health and Safety practise in New Zealand.

In the same month as the deaths of the 29, Prime Minister of the day, John Key announced the Government would conduct a Royal Commission of Inquiry – a tool rarely used, but generally aimed at delivering fundamental change.

The Commission’s final report was released nearly two years after the tragedy, in November 2012.

It found the disaster was a preventable tragedy, and whilst it could not pinpoint the actual cause of a series of explosions, it slammed the mine’s management for not properly assessing health and safety risks its workforce was facing. And it highlighted the Department of Labour’s parlous record as the former regulators of health and safety in New Zealand.

The lawyer representing the dead miners’ families said the tragedy was also a result of the failure in the way the legislation had been applied and a failure of the Department of Labour in its inspectorate role.

The report found the mine’s board of directors ignored health and safety risks and should have closed the mine until they were properly managed.

The Government moved quickly:

  • The work of the Department of Labour was transferred to the then new Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.
  • A dedicated inspectorate for high-hazard industries, mining and petroleum was quickly established

Other recommendations from the Commission included:

  • A new regulatory crown agency be established with a chief executive and board to reflect that health and safety was a responsibility of employers, workers and government.
  • Establishment of an expert taskforce to create a regulatory framework for underground coal mining.
  • Collaboration between regulators to ensure health and safety is considered before permits are issued
  • Crown Minerals regime changed to ensure that health and safety became an integral part of permit allocation and monitoring
  • Statutory responsibility of company directors for health and safety in the workplace to be reviewed to better reflect their governance responsibilities
  • An urgent review of emergency management in underground coalmines
  • Requirement that underground coal mines have modern equipment for emergencies

The next step in the change cycle was the establishment of the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety in 2012, tasked with the evaluation of whether the workplace and safety system in New Zealand was fit for purpose, and to recommend practical strategies to reduce the high rate of workplace fatalities and serious injuries by 2020.

After 10 months of consultation, analysis and research, the Taskforce delivered its report to the Minister of Labour, Hon Simon Bridges on 30 April 2013.

The Taskforce report said there was no single critical factor behind New Zealand’s poor health and safety record. Rather, New Zealand’s workplace health and safety system had a number of significant weaknesses that needed to be addressed if New Zealand was to achieve a major step-change in workplace health and safety performance.

In other words the system was broken and workers were dying as a result.

A sea change was required, where a climate of collective responsibility needed to be developed between government, employers and workers.  The goal was to reduce New Zealand’s workplace injury and death toll by 25 percent by 2020, with the final vehicle for change being the passage of the Health and Safety at Work Act last year. The Act’s key emphasis? Health and safety is a responsibility for everyone in a workplace.

That realignment and shift to collective responsibility now has the critical building blocks in place and it’s time to turn our minds and efforts to health in the workplace – the other component of the health and safety double billing.

The Advocacy team of the EMA, led by Paul Jarvie (who led our responses and contributions on the safety changes), is now turning its attentions to health as the next important driver of prosperity and workforce participation. And there are two big strands of work on the boil.

The first is helping employers achieve a healthier workforce.

Why? Current research tells us the cost of ill health to the country and to business is 10 times that of the cost of workplace injury and death. Those numbers got our attention too!

We have teamed up with the country’s biggest private health care provider and insurer, Southern Cross, to talk to members about the health of their workforce and what measures are needed and are possible to create a healthier and more productive workforce. Our Members with large work forces will be hearing from us soon on how to be a part of a far reaching survey on workplace Wellness. We will be rolling out the results across our region through our normal communications channels, but also through road shows around the major centres in our region north of Taupo.

The second stream of work is around our ageing workforce. By the year 2068, there will be 400,000 or 29 percent of workers over the age of 65, compared to just seven percent now – four times as many. We are going to have to move quickly to figure out how to keep their skills up to speed and how to help keep them healthy enough to work.

This makes the discovery of workplace trends, like those that will be thrown up by the Southern Cross Wellness Survey, critical to building the big picture of health and wellness in the workplace. In addition, we are working with Southern Cross and players like the Retirement Commission, MBIE, and the Ministry of Social Development to help define how health and the ageing work force can be better understood in order to deliver employers the programmes and solutions they need to meet the challenge.

Important for many reasons, but from an employers’ perspective, critical to being able to fill a huge projected skills shortage.

In short, it’s not long before we will begin to rely on our older workers to continue to work productively and we will need them healthy if we are to mitigate this perfect storm on the international horizon.    







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