One hour of OHS discussion on New Zealand radio

On 17 August 2014, RadioLiveNZ‘s Mark Sainsbury devoted an hour to discussing workplace health and safety.  Given New Zealand has undergone a remarkable change on its occupational health and safety (OHS) strategy since the Pike River disaster, with the restructuring of its regulations and regulator into WorkSafeNZ, the various interviews are worth listening to.

This series of interviews are structured assuming that the audience has no prior knowledge of OHS.  The first interview was with a representative of the Accident Compensation Commission, Dr Geraint Emrys.

Dr Emrys lists fishing, forestry, and farming and agriculture as the industries of most concern.  This list is not surprising considering the industrial profile of New Zealand but it is curious that mining was not mentioned, even in passing, given the prominence of Pike River.

Emrys is asked about the opportunity to build an overall safety culture for New Zealand.  Emrys says that overall campaigns are possible in the hope that the change will trickle down but sees more value in targeted campaigns.  He implies that cultural change is attractive but due to the length of time required to achieve such change, the targeted campaigns have the greatest chance of success in the short term.  This is understandable but one would think that New Zealand is best placed at the moment to promote a nationwide campaign for cultural change in workplace safety given the enormous attention that Pike River and its Royal Commission generated, as well as the OHS issues generated through the rebuilding of Christchurch.  Surely the time taken to achieve change would be substantially condensed by the high OHS awareness in the community.

Emrys also acknowledges that the New Zealand community still sees OHS regulators as interfering in how business is conducted.  This seems odd given the OHS issues over the last couple of years but may be indicative of the entrenched bureaucratic reputation of the former OHS regulator.  Even a strong awakening to OHS is insufficient to weaken the dominant perspective.

Dr Emrys provides a clue to resilience of a poor OHS reputation when he mentions that business operators may struggle to see the link between disastrous safety management at an underground mine with the safety deficiencies of their own perhaps non-mining businesses.

The second interview focused on the OHS issues of farming by talking with D’Arcy Palmer of the Farmers for Farm Safety. Palmer clarifies some incident statistical ratios but significantly mentions suicides, a growing hazard not only in New Zealand.  He says that the country loses a farmer though injury every 18-19 days and that there have been 25 suicides in the agricultural industry, whether that is annually is unclear.

Palmer provides an intriguing demographic picture of the workforce in New Zealand farms – a mix of backpackers, immigrant workers and others – of which he estimates 20% are dyslexic, implying that the effort required to implement a safe workplace in agriculture is underestimated.

He also spends some time explaining the skills needed to be an OHS adviser or inspector on New Zealand farms and the lack of clarity on who controls the workplace and who, therefore, has the OHS responsibility.  Such discussions are certainly not unique to New Zealand as the issue of “control” has been argued for some years.  In terms of establishing and maintaining a safe workplace  it is almost a spurious argument but it is a significant point when determining legal responsibility.  The argument illustrates the difference between managing OHS because it is a legal requirement and managing OHS because it is a moral duty.  The discussion reflects the dichotomy of preventing an injury versus managing an injury.  OHS is about both elements but primarily the former.

Another interview was conducted with Roger Heale of the NZ Taxi Federation. The interview starts with a discussion about the reduction in assaults on taxi drivers since in-cab cameras have been installed.  This is an important discussion as government often sees an increase in surveillance as an attractive incident prevention measure.  The worth of this strategy is debatable as the presence of a camera may not prevent harm (the aim of OHS), only make it easier to identify the culprit or prosecute the offender.  However, Heale argues that the visible presence of a camera and the passenger’s awareness of the camera makes the passenger think twice about assaulting the driver.

 Helen Kelly of the NZ Council of Trade Unions (NZCTU) is later in the hour and has the luxury of commenting on previous speakers.  She is critical of the comments of Dr Emrys who, she says, fails to consider the big picture by comparing the OHS performance of the high risk industries with similar industries in other jurisdictions.

Kelly drew attention to the interim report into safety in forestry operations that was released in June 2014. (more on this in a later SafetyAtWorkBlog article)  This report looks at the issue of working hours as well as other matters and there is a short discussion about the death of forestry worker Charles Finlay who “was working on an unlit site in the middle of winter after very long hours.”

Kelly speaks of the circumstances of Finlay’s death in terms of a deregulated labour market, issues discussed to some degree in the recent book by Navarro and Muntaner. In fact she calls for the reregulation of the labour market.  Kelly also describes the dairy industry and forestry industry models as unsustainable in terms of worker incomes.

She also counters Mark Sainsbury‘s questions about the lack of a safety attitude in workers and business owners by referring back to the Pike River Royal Commission report which reported on a lack of regulatory attention to the mine. Workers at the mine raised hundreds of safety notices about hazards that were not acted upon by the OHS regulator.

The hour is closed with an interview with Gordon MacDonald of WorkSafeNZ. MacDonald was in the enviable position of having heard previous interviewees and was able to acknowledge the reskilling and re-resourcing of a new regulatory body.  The enthusiasm of a new executive is clear in his voice, he has been in job for less than a year. He also stressed that “we cannot enforce and inspect our way to change in health and safety across this country”.

More time could have been allocated to WorkSafeNZ in this radio program but MacDonald was clearly “on message”.  The program could have benefited from the opportunity for talkback and questions from the community but there was enough interesting content to illustrate the tough challenge facing WorkSafeNZ and the NZ business community.

Kevin Jones

Categories business, government, hazards, Inspectors, law, OHS, safety, safety culture, Uncategorized, union, WorkSafeTags ,

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