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Pioneering days leave health and safety legacy

Councils around the country may face some 21st century risks from much earlier practices. Aggregate News editor Brendon Burns reports.

As settlers tumbled across the New Zealand landscape in the 19th century, the demand for aggregate was their ballast. Local county councils opened and operated hundreds of small quarries and gravel pits across New Zealand. Often these were sited no more than the distance a horse and cart could pull a load of aggregate to help 
with forming roads, home or farm building sites.

Fast-forward to 2016. The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 was passed in September 2015. From April 4 this year a raft of new responsibilities and liabilities will be passed to a PCBU – a Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking.

Many councils still own land on which quarries are sited; some even operate quarries.

In June 2015, Murray Taylor died in a limestone quarry collapse at Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 in North Canterbury. He was operating the quarry without the appropriate certificate but it was leased from the Hurunui District Council, based at Amberley.

Aggregate News has been told the Waikari tragedy caused a number of local authorities to intensify their focus on the liabilities they might face as quarry 
site owners.

“This tragedy has awoken landowners, including councils, to the risks and liabilities they face as quarry site owners,” says a quarry source who previously worked for a council.

LGNZ president Lawrence Yule says he has not heard of councils applying any more urgency to reviewing their potential liabilities with quarries.

He says councils already have a range of responsibilities for quarrying under the law, including RMA permits for extraction from riverbeds.

Lawrence acknowledges that there may be health and safety implications for councils that own quarry sites where an accident happens. He says the Waikari death was a terrible accident and he preferred not to comment on the ramifications from that while investigations continued.

His own council, Hastings District not only owns a number of quarry sites but also operates a quarry itself at Poukawa. Under the new legislation, PCBUs can face fines of up to $600,000 and five years in jail for recklessly ignoring health and safety requirements.

Lawrence says if his council staff have any concerns about their potential exposure as quarry owners to the new health and safety legislation, it hasn’t reached him.

“Nobody has raised a big red flag to me yet.”

He says a lot of old quarries developed by councils many years before will have been sold or become disused.

WorkSafe’s chief inspector extractives Tony Forster says its High Hazards Unit (HHU) is well advanced in developing a national quarries locations database. This will be the first such comprehensive list of quarry sites.

He says this will enable the HHU to differentiate between quarry operations that have notified WorkSafe as required under the 2013 regulations and those sites apparently flying under the radar. A quarry site verification exercise will then be carried out across New Zealand.

“The new Act lays out responsibilities and obligations. Good operators will be at that level now and the new Act will not mean a great deal of change. But what the Act does do for others who are not there yet is identify very clearly what they need to do to ensure the operations and their workers are healthy and safe while they’re at work,” Tony says.

“That’s an outcome we all want.”

It is understood from some in the quarry sector that there may be hundreds of former quarry sites across New Zealand in varying states of repair.

Some may be council-owned; others vested in council by government agencies. Some quarry operators are now working with councils to remediate sites to reduce quarry walls to more acceptable slopes or fill in water pits.

This work has increased since work on the new health and safety legislation emerged a few years ago – and intensified since the Waikari tragedy on a council-owned site.

Some former quarries are able to be left as they are; others need remediation.

Lawrence says LGNZ has had concerns about the issues for councils raised by the new health and safety legislation and was active in the select committee process.

LGNZ’s submission on the legislation does not, however make any reference to what liabilities might ensue for councils which leased or owned quarry sites. The principal concern expressed centred around councillors not being exposed to workplace safety liabilities.

Lawrence said LGNZ was seeking a meeting with WorkSafe to discuss the new, emerging regulations, including those for quarries, which will support the new legislation.

This article was first published in the February 2016 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.

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