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Health and Safety at Work Act- What you need to know

Recently I enjoyed hosting the Workplace Relations and Safety Minister, Hon. Michael Woodhouse, at my monthly forum in Frankton.

There has ben a lot of talk about recent changes to the health and safety law which came into effect in early April.  Much of that talk has been inaccurate and unhelpful.

Michael spoke in detail about the new law, correcting many misconceptions, and stressed how important it is to understand how the changes affect us all.

There is no doubt that New Zealand’s rate of death and serious harm in our workplaces is unacceptably high.  Our serious harm rate is twice that of Australia and three times that of the UK.  We all need to do more to prevent accidents and improve safety in the workplace.

The Government has sought to achieve a balance between increasing protection for workers while not wrapping businesses up in red tape.  I’m confident that we have achieved that, but some stories in the media recently have suggested the opposite.

School principals wanting to ban pupils from climbing trees out of fear of the Health and Safety at Work Act is an example of an overreaction to this legislation. Not only are children still able to climb trees, they should be positively encouraged!  That isn’t to say schools themselves shouldn’t be mindful of the changes, but this is about focusing on doing what is sensible and proportionate. It’s not about treating every organisation, from the low risk office to the dangerous oil refinery, in exactly the same way. Principals have a responsibility to take practicable steps to keep their staff, students, and others safe. This is nothing new. Teachers and principals should take a sensible approach in identifying hazards and risks and ensure they are managed. It isn’t necessary to ban tree climbing, school camps, outdoor education activities and school trips to the beach. They are all still appropriate and encouraged. The school board should exercise active governance over health and safety as they do over finance - no more no less - and trustees are protected from prosecution even if they fail in that duty.

Last year there was a lot of discussion around worker participation including some silly reports of worm farms and lavender growing as dangerous activities. It led some to perceive that farmers were somehow off the hook under the new law. This is not true. They are required to comply with all aspects of health and safety law and to have effective worker participation practices. But there are some special features of farm life which are reflected in the Act. For example, a farmer can’t be held responsible for people who access their property for recreation. A hunter who falls and breaks their leg while crossing the top paddock is not the farmer’s responsibility. Utility providers needing to come on and fix power lines at 3 a.m. in a storm are not the farmer’s responsibility. The farmhouse is not considered a place of work.

Most injuries on farms occur as a result of accidents using quad bikes and other transport machinery, combined with the movement of stock.It’s important that all farmers take practical steps to ensure that they use the right tools for the job and reduce the risk of harm when moving stock.

Volunteers and sports clubs have also been a bit spooked by these changes. They need not be. The same arrangements as were in place under the old Health and Safety in Employment Act have been transferred into the new Act.

I encourage anybody who hears something that sounds silly about the health and safety reforms to check with my office or with a WorkSafe staff member. If it sounds overly bureaucratic or silly, it probably is, and we would be happy to dispel any myths. This is important because there are really significant things that businesses do need to do to comply with the law. They are not onerous but they will reduce death and injury at work, and that’s what we are all hoping will occur.

The most important change has to be to in our behaviour and attitudes. The Government can change all the rules and regulations we like, but it is changes in behaviour and attitude at work that will make a real difference and ensure that we all come home safely at the end of the day.

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