Health & Safety Why Safe is Sound – Reducing workplace injuries

Every year dozens of New Zealanders kiss their loved ones goodbye, climb into their car, head off to work… and never come home again.
New Zealand has an appalling health and safety record, with an incidence of work-related injury, death and disease higher than most other first world nations. In 2001 alone, 73 deaths were investigated by OSH, figure not including deaths which occurred in the maritime or aviation sector.
A recent study by Dave McLean, from the Wellington School of Medicine, estimated that the number of deaths from occupational disease in New Zealand is somewhere between 250 to 600 per year. This includes the widely acknowledged estimate that approximately four percent of all cancer deaths are the result of exposure to toxins in the line of duty.
OSH and ACC-sponsored research carried out by Otago University, and published in 1999, identified 820 work-related deaths from 1985 to 1994. While the study found 30 percent decrease in the number of work-related fatalities over the study period, the findings leave little room for complacency.
If work-related fatality statistics are shocking, the scale of work-related injury and illness is equally alarming. In April 2003, Statistics New Zealand released its report “Injury Statistics 2001/2002: Work-related Injuries”. This showed massive 229,489 work-related injuries in the year to June 2002, an increase of 0.7 percent on the previous year.
Males were the primary victims of work-related injury with an incidence of 180 injuries per 1000 male workers, compared to the lower female incidence of 87 injuries per 1000 workers. Forty percent of injuries resulted from falling, tripping or slipping at work. For 10 percent of workers, injuries were serious enough to warrant more than five days’ absence from work.
Work-related sickness and injury has major impact on the economy. As well as the obvious emotional and physical cost of pain and suffering for the victim and their family, the financial cost to business and society is huge.
Some estimates suggest New Zealand industry loses between $2.5 billion and $3 billion annually as result of injury or illness. In 1999 alone, OSH estimated that occupational injury costs were around $3.18 billion. In 2002, ACC paid out $129.3 million for work-related injury claims.
Early results from Southern Cross Healthwork’s new proprietary workforce study indicate that if the cost of health-related absenteeism were line item on company’s profit and loss statement, the cost would most likely exceed 15 percent of overall profit.

A jab of legality
Despite myriad of health and safety legislation, injury, sickness and death in the workplace remain very real hazard for New Zealand workers. Changes to the Health & Safety in Employment Act in May of this year have compelled employers to once again reconsider their legal responsibilities for employee well-being.
The amendments are intended to strengthen health and safety awareness, and instil more cooperative workplace culture, encouraging employees to take an integral role in devising and then implementing health and safety systems.
Every workplace is obliged to have health and safety system which may include health and safety representative who is endowed with considerable power. If representative identifies workplace hazard, they must bring it to the attention of management or an employer in the hope that the problem will be remedied. While the employer is not legally bound to remove hazard at this point, it is in their best interest to do so. Should an OSH inspector detect the same hazard, there will be an instant fine of up to $4000. The amendments also allow an employee to start litigation against an employer, even if OSH declines to do so.
David Calvert, Auckland-based director of the recently formed New Zealand Safety Council and veteran consultant on health and safety issues, is hopeful the May 5 HSE amendments will help to stimulate genuine change in management culture around health and safety. Working with wide spectrum of different-sized businesses, he is detecting shift in consciousness.
“An increasing number of employers are taking their health and safety responsibilities more seriously. The younger generation of managers in particular, are coming through with vastly improved attitude.”
He says far too many employers have considered health and safety (H&S) responsibility as an annoying and time-consuming “add on”– something to be complied with on paper as safeguard against potential fines and punishment.
“What employers have failed to understand is that safety in the workplace is not cost. It’s benefit, with potentially huge financial saving. Once business implements an effective H&S system, they will be rewarded with lower overheads, lower risk, fewer injuries and vastly improved employee morale and job satisfaction.”

“She’ll be right” won’t do
According to John Forrest, Auckland regional services manager for OSH, there is still far too much of the “she’ll be right” attitude permeating the shop floor, when it comes to minimising risk, injury and illness.
“We have third-world status when it comes to workplace fatalities. The work-place culture needs to change so that the responsibility for staying safe at work is owned by everyone, not just the manager or employer. The new H&S legislation is less prescriptive and more enabling. Often it’s the workers themselves who know the dangers most intimately. The new Act gives them the power to speak out.”
Forrest says it is not uncommon to find companies with good system in place, but more detailed look behind the scenes reveals lack of implementation on the ground floor.
“Companies buy H&S systems and believe that if they are audited they will be safe from prosecution. The number of incidents still occurring reveal that often behaviour change doesn’t match the systems on paper.”
Forrest doesn’t buy into the common complaint that H&S systems are costly obligation for business. The reality, he says, is that New Zealand still has the third lowest business compliance costs in the OECD.
“Elevating health and safety in the workplace is about elevating consciousness, not necessarily spending fortune on consultants or buying systems. Grab piece of paper, talk with your employees on the shop floor, and use their knowledge to identify hazards, and then use common sense to manage them. People are your biggest investment. The costs to you as an employer will be huge if they get injured.”
When asked for some key pointers to help managers create H&S initiatives, Forrest stresses the need for commitment.
“For it to work, managers must believe in it. We need to develop workplace culture where health and safety is treated as an everyday thing, not something you design system for and then relegate to manual. There must be an environment of good faith and trust between employers and employees, and lack of retribution for speaking out. Managers must take ownership and themselves model safe behaviours in the workplace. Role modelling needs to be combined with policy of zero tolerance for abuses of safety policy. Workers taking short cuts with safety should be disciplined, or dismissed if they repeat the unsafe work practices.” M

Info on the web
• (independent work health and safety magazine)
• (New Zealand Institute of Safety and Management)

The 10-point business HEALTH & SAFETY check
Companies out to create health and safety system that does more than simply comply with legislative requirements should consider the following key points.

1. Culture matters
Research consistently shows that organisational factors, such as tangible expressions of corporate culture are the key determinant of the level of safety performance within an organisation. The starting point for evaluating safety programmes needs to be thorough examination of organisati

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