New Zealand has poor workplace health and safety record, according to the recently released Independent Taskforce Report on Health and Safety, which was established to identify leadership and management practices that contributed to the South Island’s Pike River coal mine disaster. And poor governance and management commitment to best practice are largely responsible for workplace safety culture that is no longer “fit for purpose”.
The surprisingly critical report says government regulators, directors and managers have taken their collective eyes off the health and safety ball over the past two or so decades. Poorly administered government regulation and private sector boards and managers have together created “dysfunctional” health and safety system such that New Zealand no longer stacks up internationally when it comes to caring about employee safety.
New Zealand is excessively “risk tolerant” about workplace health and safety, the report said. It singled out the manufacturing, construction, agriculture, forestry and fishing industries for particular criticism. They accounted for more than half of all serious workplace incidents. And Maori, Pacific Island and some other ethnicities were reportedly more likely to be seriously injured at work.
The report’s observations on the role and responsibilities of directors are clear and unequivocal. “Governance is framework of interlocking values, principles and practices,” it said. And directors must be ethical and demand high practice standards. They should also hold “management to account” and ensure effective compliance with safety rules and regulations.
“Health and safety governance is as important as any other aspect of governance. It is fundamental part of an organisation’s overall risk management function which is key director responsibility. Failure to effectively manage health and safety risk carried both human and business costs,” the report said.
Directors had both an opportunity and an obligation to “make difference” by providing good leadership in “this critical area of governance”. Employees, investors and other stakeholders valued organisations with good health and safety culture and reputation, the report added.
NZIM chief executive Kevin Gaunt was member of the Taskforce, which has also developed guidelines to provide advice on health and safety governance. “We will communicate the availability of these guidelines to our members and incorporate them in our level 6 Occupational Safety and Health Programme for OSH practitioners,” he said after the report was released last month.
“Health and safety is an important team leadership agenda in all organisations, and especially in areas where safety risks are higher than normal. It is an issue for all organisations. Managers need to build culture that openly invites employees to treat safety as an important day-to-day issue and feel safe about reporting not only accidents but also, and even more importantly, near misses. This doesn’t just happen. Managers need to role model the right behaviours and attitudes toward safety,” says Gaunt.
Two New Zealanders are killed at work every week. And every year between 600 and 900 Kiwis die from occupational diseases such as asbestosis. The estimated financial cost of this toll is at least $3.5 billion year. “The cost in human suffering can’t be measured,” says Gaunt.
NZIM’s current Level 6 OSH Diploma is recognised as one of New Zealand’s best available health and safety courses. It is continuously updated to reflect practice changes and will incorporate the learnings documented in the new Director Safety and Health Guideline.
The guideline has been developed by the Institute of Directors (IoD), the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE) with assistance from NZIM, the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (NZCTU), Business Leaders Forum, Employers and Manufacturers Association (EMA) and Business New Zealand.
The guideline is designed to:
• show how directors can influence health and safety performance;
• provide framework for directors to lead, plan, review and improve health and safety;
• help directors identify whether their health and safety management systems are up to standards that effectively minimise risk; and,
• encourage directors to create strong, objective reporting lines and board communication.
“NZIM and IoD are mutually supportive organisations,” says Gaunt. “Managers are often also directors. We regularly meet with IoD to discuss joint needs and opportunities and we will work together to implement the outcomes of this exercise. We are also keen to jointly develop governance guidelines for not-for-profit organisations.”
According to Gaunt, the Taskforce’s guideline captures the essential information managers and directors need to take responsibility for good health and safety governance. IoD has also developed less comprehensive document for directors of organisations that already have strong safety and health experiences and procedures.
The guideline document is not legally enforceable. Courts might take its suggestions into account, but there is no compulsion to do so. It does, however, refer to relevant New Zealand legislation and specific provisions within legislation.
According to the report, positive and robust health and safety culture starts at the board table and spreads thought the organisation to deliver significant value. The benefits that accrue from best practice heath and safety include:
• enhanced standing among potential employees, customers, suppliers, partners and investors resulting from good reputation garnered by being committed to health and safety;
• positive employee participation in other aspects of the enterprise;
• decreased absenteeism and employee turnover – engaged workers are more productive;
• reduced business costs, for example lower ACC premiums;
• potentially increased economic returns.
The Government has welcomed the Taskforce Report and the Governance Guideline that resulted from it. Labour Minister Simon Bridges has promised to respond to the Report’s recommendations next month. “We know – and the taskforce process has confirmed – that we need to refresh and recalibrate how we manage and embed good health and safety practices,” he said after the Report’s release.
“NZIM will be keeping in touch with the key policy makers involved here to ensure our OSH programme is maintained to the highest level,” says Gaunt. “We will also report future developments relevant to managers as they emerge. This is critical issue. It is shame that we had to experience disaster as horrifying as Pike River to bring everyone’s focus back on to just how far our health and safety standards had slipped.”
Gaunt agrees with the guideline’s accompanying statement that “directors should set the overall tone for participation by holding management to account to ensure workers are involved in health and safety programme formulation and implementation”. Questions such as; ‘what are our employees saying about this issue?’ or ‘how do our employees feel about it?’ can indeed bring new dimension to any discussion around the issue, he said. M
Reg Birchfield Life FNZIM is writer on leadership, governance and management. [email protected]