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The future of health & safety

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Workforce and management training, higher levels of awareness and a greater focus on wellbeing will become more important as local authorities enter a new era of workplace health and safety. Patricia Moore maps the near and distant future.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 has turned the spotlight squarely on improving New Zealand’s workplace safety record. By providing a flexible framework to help improve performance, regardless of industry sector, the aim is to cut the workplace injury and death toll by a quarter by 2020.

But does the biggest change in more than 20 years mean a new approach for local authorities as they plan to make the next decade a safer one for employees across the board?

WorkSafe New Zealand’s John Tulloch says implementation of the new Act is a real opportunity for local authorities to collectively lift their game in work health and safety.

“Essentially the key changes for workers are a greater clarity and awareness of duties and improved risk identification and management,” he says. “Achieve progress in those areas and we’d be well on our way to rectifying this country’s poor performance.”

Local authorities operate a wide range of functions, activities and businesses that range from high to low risk, says John.

“Some have already invested in risk identification and management expertise while others are contracting it out. Over time these will become part of the core business operating model. But for those which believe they are deficient, there may be a period of coming up to speed.”

Roger McRae, managing director of McConnell Dowell Contractors, says because local authorities fall within the definition of a PCBU – a Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking, and as such, are included in the Act – there is greater responsibility to be more actively involved in how safety is managed.

“They have a fantastic opportunity to lead engagement and best practice throughout the whole supply chain by working with their partners and suppliers to achieve a higher standard of safety competency.”

Roger, who is on the board of the Construction Safety Council, notes that historically some local authorities have delegated safety to the construction companies they engaged, so some up-skilling may be needed for employees.

“Some already do this well but I’m keen to see more client managers engaged in safety on our projects,” he says. “Not only will that help them manage their own risk under the new legislation, it also helps us as contractors to raise safety standards.

“A challenge for local authorities will be making sure their senior managers and officers are well informed at all times about the safety of their worksites. This means being fully engaged, fully understanding the risk areas and putting processes in place to consistently monitor and manage those risks.”

Roger says strong leadership will be key and training is likely to be needed. “The change will take some organisations out of their comfort zone but it will help them become stronger in the long term.”

Impac Services is working with a number of local authorities on safety and risk management solutions. Milene Haakman, GM training, says the importance of specific training, particularly for new recruits, will mean this is ongoing.

The focus is on three main areas: management training, from supervisory level up, to ensure there’s an understanding of the role and what’s needed to ensure a safe workplace; training in the contractor (PCBU) management area; and project management for in-house staff.

“We’re also doing a lot more with councils on advanced incident / accident investigation techniques, because these now need to be investigated more thoroughly.”

A recent Safeguard State of the Nation health and safety survey exposed wide differences between views on ‘safety’ and ‘health’. Of almost 800 respondents, around 67 percent agreed or strongly agreed ‘the safety of workers is taken seriously’ while only 42.5 percent agreed or strongly agreed the same could be said for their health and wellbeing.

John Tulloch believes the health aspect has been missing from the agenda for too long.

The new Act addresses this by placing greater focus on wellbeing. And while there’s a growing emphasis on corporate social responsibility – with many wellness programmes and initiatives already implemented – Roger McRae predicts an increase in senior managers and officers stepping up their game.

“Caring for employees is the responsibility of employers and is as much about wellbeing as it is about safety. One affects the other. Look out for the health and state of mind of your people and there will be fewer incidents. Employees will also become more engaged and I’d like to think we’ll start to see a cultural mind-shift generally in our approach to health, safety and wellness.”

According to Milene Haakman, there’s probably a greater awareness that all staff need to understand they not only have to make themselves safe but that they can speak up about the unsafe behaviour of others. “We’re looking to having a culture of safety that starts at grass-roots level.”

But changes to an organisation’s culture don’t happen overnight. “Human behaviour has to change to make a safe working environment. If local authorities can focus on that they are doing really well,” she says.

There have been a lot of column inches devoted to the new Act – not all of them well informed. WorkSafe’s John Tulloch recommends utilising the information and formal guidance provided on the WorkSafe website.

“The new law hasn’t created new risks. It’s a new framework around managing risk, including clarifying responsibilities.”

For responsible employers nothing has changed, says Roger McRae. “But for those with work to do, it puts them on notice and removes uncertainty by providing clear guidance on what needs to be done.”

• Patricia Moore is a freelance writer. mch@xtra.co.nz

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

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