Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online)

A Bad Day at the Sausage Factory: The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015

Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online)

A Bad Day at the Sausage Factory: The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015

Article excerpt

Those who believe in justice and those who love sausage should never watch either being made.1


A casual observer of the progress of the Health and Safety Reform Bill may have been surprised by the abrupt fracturing of the cross-party and cross-industry consensus supporting the Bill as it made its way back from the Transport and Industrial Relations Committee.

The Bill passed its first reading on 13 March 2014 with the support of all parties. By the second reading on 30 July 2015, the Labour, Green and New Zealand First parties had withdrawn their support for the Bill. The New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (CTU) and affiliated unions launched a significant nationwide campaign to push for change in the Bill in concert with the families of workers killed at work (including those who lost loved ones working at Pike River Mine and in the forestry industry).

Despite the disquiet and dissent, the Bill passed into law as the new Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (the Act) and a series of major amendments to other existing pieces of legislation. Most of the key provisions came into effect on 4 April 2016 and there will be significant work to complete supporting regulations and guidance in the meantime.

The purpose of this paper is to explain the CTU's most fundamental concerns with the new Act. It is important to acknowledge at the outset that legal change is not a panacea for the dismal state of health and safety practice in New Zealand. If New Zealand is to lift its performance we must also tackle fundamental deficits in knowledge, culture and power. However, good regulation should provide the framework that brings about the change needed for a positive health and safety culture and, conversely, badly-made law can hinder this cultural change. It is the view of the CTU that the Act will not deliver the change we need. The evidence suggests there is a problem.

This paper explains why changes made by the new Act to existing health and safety legislation some substantially compromise its effectiveness.2 Before addressing these concerns it is useful to begin with a reminder of how New Zealand arrived at its current health and safety position and the ingredients that have gone into the new Act.

The Pike River Tragedy and Aftermath

On Friday 19 November 2010, a methane explosion occurred at the Pike River Coal Mine on the West Coast of the South Island. 29 men were trapped in the mine by the explosion, condition unknown. Following a second explosion five days later, all were presumed dead. Their bodies have never been recovered.

The Royal Commission on the Pike River Coal Mine Tragedy was convened and found major flaws in the performance of the regulator and the operation of the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992. The Royal Commission said that "major change [is] required and fast" and that "administrative and regulatory reforms are urgently needed to reduce the likelihood of further tragedies."3

The report's findings regarding the regulatory failings led to the then-Minister of Labour, Kate Wilkinson, resigning her ministerial warrant. The Royal Commission identified two particular weaknesses in the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992: weak legal duties for directors to ensure health and safety and weak worker participation.

While the Royal Commission was investigating, the Government convened an expert taskforce to research, investigate and hear submissions on issues regarding New Zealand's workplace health and safety performance. The Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety (the Taskforce) was chaired by the Chairman of Shell Oil, Rob Jager, and included representatives of businesses, workers and the agricultural sector.

The Taskforce issued its report in April 2013. The report is a clear-eyed survey of the health and safety landscape in New Zealand. It is also an indictment. The Taskforce noted that there are around 200,000 claims to ACC each year by people injured at work and that, along with an emotional toll, the economic, medical and social costs of these injuries may be as high as four percent of GDP. …

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