Pike River lessons go unheeded
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.