It was with great disappointment that I read the news from New Zealand that the government has moved to water down the legislative changes brought about after recommendations from the Pike River disaster were made, and also the key findings from the Independent Workplace Health and Safety Task force established in 2012, whose chairman reported in 2013 that the NZ’s current H & S system is not fit for purpose and significant weaknesses.
One would think that such critical flaws in a system that has proven time and time again to be contributing factors in workplace fatalities and serious injuries that all these recommendations would lead to positive legislative change as well as a cultural shift in the recognition of the importance of workplace safety.
Unfortunately it appears this is not the case in past weeks objections to the proposed Health & Safety Bill have meant a possible watering down of laws especially around small business operations such as agriculture and forestry.
Having recently visited NZ I was shown statistics on workplace fatalities over the past five years. Agricultural workplace fatalities have actually decreased from 21 to 7 and forestry 10 to 1 in the past few years since reforms have taken place but they are still far too high.
Mining fatality statistics appear high but deduct the Pike 29 from its tally and there have actually only been four fatalities over the past five years in mining.
To me, the decreases should be something to celebrate with fewer lives lost at work.
However it has been stated that red tape and the cost of compliance [in implementing these proposed new laws] is too high for small business especially those with fewer than 20 employees.
Small business operators have also opposed having Health & Safety representatives on the job; but it has also been proven beneficial and successful when more eyes oversee the workplace.
Had their been more worker participation, union representation, and a regulator that actually did it’s job the Pike 29 would still be with us now, as would many other workers whose lives have been lost in similar circumstances.
Cost should not be a consideration when it comes to health and safety as the personal and economic costs of the loss of a worker far outweighs any business costs.
These small businesses have the most to gain by working towards having a robust Heath and safety system that protects them and their workers and modelling many reforms on Australian legislation can only help when employees often work between the two countries.
Another measure to be considered is the inclusion of Corporate Manslaughter law in the Health & Safety Bill.
With nobody held accountable for the Pike River disaster and a judicial review into the dropping of charges against Peter Whittall – the CEO of Pike River -still to hand down it’s findings, this is an issue the families are following closely.
However protecting workers and advocating for safer workplaces are the issue the Pike families have been most passionate about over the past few years, often overlooking their own grief and ongoing struggles to strive towards assisting in improving the system in NZ for current and future workers – a legacy for the 29 men lost at the Pike River coal mine.
But for now we shall all have to wait until later this month when the Bill is again presented in Parliament to see whether or not the lessons learnt by yet another workplace tragedy will continue to be pushed aside for profits and political gain.