For more than a hundred years most aspects of occupational health and safety (OHS) in New Zealand and elsewhere have been treated as a matter for state intervention. Traditionally there has been an expectation shared by workers, employers, and the general community that in matters concerning the health and safety of workers, some state intervention through legislation is necessary, if only to set minimum standards and punish gross violators. The justification for such legislation and its enforcement can be seen in several ways. First, management may consider the safety and health of the labour it employs to be unimportant and/or, in the face of competitive pressures, fail to provide sufficient protection for workers. Second, workers in such circumstances are relatively powerless to protect themselves, particularly when there is a large pool of unemployed labour and unions are weak. Third, enforcement is the mechanism by which people or organisations are held to account for their actions or inactions as well as creating a level playing field for “good” employers.
New Zealand also holds itself up as having a decent standard of living and a relatively robust and functioning infrastructure aimed at protecting its vulnerable citizens. One way in which countries can be judged as to their level of sophistication over human rights is the way in which labour is treated and afforded state protection. In particular, the efficacy of New Zealand’s OHS legislation and regulatory enforcement agency, now known as Worksafe New Zealand, are seen as a barometer of its “developed country” status. So how have we been doing?
Let us first look at the level of enforcement in New Zealand. In line with government policies aimed at introducing flexibility and efficiencies into the market and to “roll back the state” since the 1980s, the actual numbers of OHS inspectors has reduced by over 41 per cent yet the number of businesses has increased by over 53 per cent (as of 2013). The chance of a workplace being visited by an inspector, therefore, is highly unlikely given that there are only approximately 150 OHS inspectors covering more than 480,000 businesses and over 2 million employees (Statistics NZ, 2014). In the case of the mining industry, in 2009 there were 21 mines, 5 of which were underground, employing 1030 workers and only 2 mine inspectors; but by 2011 there was only one mine inspector for the whole of New Zealand.
This stretched line of enforcement has also meant that full OHS audits have been extremely rare and that there have been few and sporadic workplace inspections, as highlighted by the evidence presented at the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Pike River Coal Tragedy (14th July Transcript, 2011). The evidence that New Zealand’s OHS regulatory system has been failing because of an over-stretched inspectorate can also be found in the high number of work-related injuries and illnesses in New Zealand, compared with other OCED countries.
While the Labour Coalition Government of 1999-2008 endeavoured to reverse the atrophying of Department of Labour and the weakening of the position of the Minister of Labour, the 2008 election of the National Coalition Government finally demolished the long-established prominence of the position of employment relations and the Department of Labour within Cabinet. In hindsight it should not have come as any surprise when the Prime Minister announced on the 14th March 2012 that the New Zealand Department of Labour was to be disestablished on the 1st July 2012 and merged into a supra agency, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. The dismantling of the New Zealand Department of Labour has not only attract international attention but it has also raised a number of questions, including how will vulnerable workers be protected under the new regime?
In the face of the increasing number of work-related fatalities and anticipated criticisms over the state’s role in the Pike River Coal Mine disaster, the National Coalition Government also announced two initiatives (National Government Press Release, June 2012). First, the National Government added an extra $37 million to the existing OHS state budget. This extra funding will be used to increase the number of front-line health and safety inspectors, further fund the High Hazards Unit, support targeted health and safety initiatives, and improve data sharing and analysis. The then Minister of Labour, Kate Wilkinson, also announced that the number of inspectors will rise to 180 over three years—a 20 per cent increase that will bring New Zealand in line with Australia (although this is debatable). Second, the Minister of Labour has ordered a full review of New Zealand’s health and safety system by an independent taskforce (see Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety) to ensure that both the OHS law and the regulatory enforcement agency are fit for purpose.
As part of the review process undertaken by the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety (2012), opinions were canvassed from the public, including the families of the deceased miners killed at Pike River Coal Mine, employer and trade union representatives and OHS experts. There was an overwhelming consensus for a stand-alone, independent agency with the capacity to enforce regulations, instigate prevention measures, compile robust injury and illness databases, and investigate accidents and diseases. This will require the new agency Worksafe NZ to have competent staff who have content knowledge of OHS and where the policies and preventative measures are underpinned by rigorous research. So far there has been a great deal of positive activity in the area of OHS policy, regulations and engagement and we await the new legislation with bated breath.
But we need to do better. Farming and forestry are still our black spots in OHS. There have been repeated calls from experts and from the relatives of the victims for their recommendations to be implemented in these sectors and yet the remedies have been piecemeal and slow in coming. The high rates of quad bike injuries and fatalities, for example, is something that the manufacturers and the farming community need to resolve and quickly. Moreover, the number of migrant workers employed illegally, paid poorly and in hazardous conditions is so prevalent in certain places in New Zealand that it is now common business practice. Also, the whittling away of one of our national treasures, Accident Compensation Corporation, is of great concern. The endless restructuring and the often needless government interference over the decades has made ACC a shadow of what it could be. The Woodhouse Principles are still as sound today as they were in 1972 and we need to revisit them. Finally, our changing demographics and business environment will continue to shape and challenge the way we respond to OHS issues. For example, the various levels of the supply chain operating across multiple jurisdictions will become more complex and the locus of control more diffused. Therefore, not only do we need to reinforce what is already working well in the changing environment but more importantly, adopt a new paradigm to tackle New Zealand’s poor occupational health and safety record.