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

Occupational Health & Safety: Introduction to the Collection

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

Occupational Health & Safety: Introduction to the Collection

Article excerpt

At 3.44 in the afternoon of Friday November 19, 2010, an explosion in the Pike River Mine on the West Coast of Aotearoa New Zealand's South Island trapped 29 men underground. Following three additional explosions over the next 10 days, police accepted that the men could not be alive and attention turned from rescue to an unsuccessful effort at recovery. The disaster remains on the public consciousness seven years later, as families of the victims continue to press authorities for the mine to be entered and the bodies of their lost men finally recovered.

The Pike River disaster has also affected the public consciousness in another way as well. In terms of the loss of human life, it was amongst the most costly workplace episodes in New Zealand history. In looking for explanations, attention quickly turned to weak mine safety regulations and inadequate mine safety inspections, which in turn led to a wider concern with the general inadequacy of New Zealand's Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) regime. These inadequacies were reinforced when an earthquake hit Christchurch for the second time in February 2011, resulting in further loss of life, including many people at work. The urgency to do something increased.

New Zealand is not alone in experiencing recent workplace tragedies, and OHS is increasingly recognised as an important Employment Relations (ER) issue, with inherent obligations on employers and the State to keep workers safe. In developed countries, a key contributory element for the escalation of occupational illness, injuries and death has been the diminishing role of unions as workers' advocates, with neither government regulation nor employer ER initiatives moving sufficiently or sufficiently quick to fill the void. The Pike River disaster and its aftermath served to highlight two important realities: by comparison with others, New Zealand's occupational accident and injury rates were high; and employers were not sufficiently attentive to or held accountable for the welfare of their workers.

Impelled by a ground swell of public opinion, change was deemed urgently necessary and employer groups in conjunction with the State belatedly swung into action. This was evidenced by the commissioning and development of a series of working papers and reports (e.g. The Report of the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety, April 2013; Wellness in the Workplace, 2013; and Workplace Health and Safety, 2012), with this work subsequently informing a revamping of OHS legislation. In April of 2016, the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA, 2015), which is explicitly aimed at securing "the health and safety" of workplaces and their employees came into force. A new regulatory agency, WorkSafe New Zealand, was established by the HSWA.

This Act has raised a lot of questions about employers' obligations and liabilities in the OHS arena, and it is against this backdrop that we were delighted to be invited by the Editors of the NZJER to convene this collection of papers on aspects of the broad and multi-faceted field of workplace health and safety. We see this collection as a beginning that urgently invites further research attention to this vital area of study.

Primary industries remain key drivers of the New Zealand economy and to some extent lifestyle as well, and the first paper in our collection illustrates the difficulties of adequately regulating for worker safety in this arena, and the complexities of regulating for worker safety across a diverse economy. Bronwyn Neal highlights peculiarities of hill country farming as an industry from an OHS perspective, including the uncontained nature of the workplace, the involvement of family labour and the integration of workplace with lifestyle, and the long tradition of public access to the privately-held terrain of the high country. Neal contends that, in the hill country farming sector, the Act has prompted peripheral issues to become the main focus, thus detracting attention away from the more serious risks experienced in this sector. …

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