Pike River lessons go un­heeded

Kapi-Mana News - - OPINION - GOR­DON CAMP­BELL

What we do at work shouldn’t kill or in­jure us or dam­age our health. In forestry, min­ing and agri­cul­ture though – to name only a few sec­tors – such risks seem al­most com­mon­place.

As the Pike River tragedy re­cedes into his­tory, the changes to our health and safety laws and prac­tices, ad­vo­cated by both the Royal Com­mis­sion and by the in­de­pen­dent Task Force on Work­place Health and Safety, are be­ing side­lined by el­e­ments in the Na­tional Party cau­cus.

Last week, a group of Na­tional MPs re­jected the lat­est ver­sion of the new, pro­posed health and safety leg­is­la­tion, even though the orig­i­nal draft had al­ready been wa­tered down sub­stan­tially.

Back in 2013, the Task Force had warned against po­lit­i­cal med­dling in the re­form process.

In its view, New Zealand’s cur- rent health and safety laws and prac­tices as de­fined by the 1992 Health, Safety and Em­ploy­ment Act are ‘‘ap­palling, un­ac­cept­able and un­sus­tain­able . . . [we] have looked at how coun­tries with much bet­ter work­place health and safety records do it.

‘‘In our view, we have found a good bal­ance re­quir­ing com­pro­mise by all par­ties that will both im­prove out­comes sub­stan­tially, and re­spect all par­ties’ needs. Make sub­stan­tial changes to that bal­ance and we will lose the vi­tal sup­port of some par­tic­i­pants, and sig­nif­i­cantly weaken the po­ten­tial benefits.’’

Sim­i­larly, the Pike River Royal Com­mis­sion had con­cluded that ‘‘ma­jor change is re­quired’’.

Re­gard­less, many of the counter-mea­sures rec­om­mended have now been scrapped by Na­tional hard­lin­ers, who are de­mand­ing fur­ther con­ces­sions be­fore the draft leg­is­la­tion re­turns to Par­lia­ment in late July.

Sev­eral safety re­quire­ments for small busi­nesses have al­ready been jet­ti­soned and along with them, any sug­ges­tion of manda­tory worker in­volve­ment in safety prac­tices.

Any firm with fewer than 20 work­ers, for ex­am­ple, will no longer be re­quired to al­low its em­ploy­ees to elect a health and safety rep­re­sen­ta­tive.

This ex­emp­tion is sig­nif­i­cant, given that con­tract­ing out has re­sulted in the atom­is­ing of many work sites into a wel­ter of small con­trac­tors and sub­con­trac­tors – thereby leav­ing the re­spon­si­bil­ity for health and safety mea­sures not only un­clear, but li­able to be­ing trimmed in the course of com­pet­i­tive ten­der­ing for con­tracts.

In the draft bill, worker par­tic­i­pa­tion in health and safety will now ap­ply only to larger firms. Small firms will not have to ap­point health and safety com­mit­tees.

Sev­eral pages of clauses re­lat­ing to the pow­ers and re­spon­si­bil­i­ties of health and safety rep­re­sen­ta­tives have been deleted from the leg­is­la­tion. A clause stip­u­lat­ing that work should be car­ried out only by a per­son with pre­scribed ex­pe­ri­ence and qual­i­fi­ca­tions has also been deleted.

The hos­til­ity among Na­tional MPs ( and em­ployer groups) to greater worker par­tic­i­pa­tion in health and safety mea­sures – a com­mon role over­seas, and a key plank of the Royal Com­mis­sion find­ings – ap­pears to be based on fears that such mea­sures could be­come a ‘‘ Tro­jan horse’’ that unions might con­ceiv­ably use for lever­age in other ar­eas.

Such fears seem un­founded, es­pe­cially be­cause many work­place ac­ci­dents ac­tu­ally oc­cur on non-unionised sites.

In late July, the full ex­tent of the roll­back of the Royal Com­mis­sion and Task Force rec­om­men­da­tions will be­come clear.

The risk is that our dan­ger­ously out­dated regime of dereg­u­la­tion and vol­un­tary com­pli­ance – which was found to have led di­rectly to the Pike River tragedy – will be per­pet­u­ated, for what looks like po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­di­ence.

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