Health and safety law revamp

Feb 04, 2014
Written by

Tessa Johnstone

Employers face harsher penalties for putting their workers at risk under new legislation proposed by the Government.

The health and safety reform package, touted to be the biggest change in 20 years by the Labour Minister, comes two months after the release of a report by the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety.

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Labour Minister Simon Bridges said the changes are aimed at cutting workplace injuries and deaths by 25 per cent in the next seven years.

"This is the legacy we owe to the Pike River families, the families of the 75 people who are killed each year in New Zealand workplaces, and the estimated 600 to 900 who die annually from the long-term effects of occupational disease," he said.

The reforms will bring New Zealand health and safety laws in line with Australia's.

The proposed package includes:
- A new Health and Safety at Work bill, modelled on Australian laws, to be introduced to Parliament in December. If passed it will replace the existing Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992. It will outline the obligation businesses, employees and government have to keep people safe.
- A new government regulator, WorkSafe New Zealand, will target work sectors with a high number of deaths and serious injuries, and major hazard facilities which have the potential for ''one-off catastrophic events''.

- ACC levies will rise by 3 cents per $100 of wages to 8c to pay for health and safety, with the budget for the regime rising from $53.7 million a year to $79.3m by 2018.

- Nearly everyone will be responsible for ensuring a safe and healthy workplace - from the cleaner to the chairman of the board - though the level of responsibility will depend on the role. Companies will also be responsible for sub-contractors and ''obligations cannot be contracted away''.

- If a person or business does not exercise the due diligence required in their role WorkSafe can issue infringement notices and bring prosecutions. Infringement notices can be issued without a formal warning first.

- A tiered liability regime has been proposed with three categories of offence: Reckless conduct (a maximum penalty of $600,000 for an individual and five years' imprisonment, or up to $3m for a company), failure exposing to serious risk (a maximum penalty of $300,000 for an individual and or up to $1.5m for a company), and failure (a maximum penalty of $100,000 for an individual and or up to $500,000 for a company).

- Worker participation in workplace health and safety issues will be legislated, but a company's obligations will depend on the size of the company. There will be a general duty to involve and consult workers on health and safety and to support health and safety representatives with  training and resources. The law will specify powers for representatives and committees, and may include powers to demand unsafe work stops and issue a provisional improvement notice to address a health and safety issue.

- WorkSafe and ACC will work together on a workplace injury prevention plan.

The package has stopped short of implementing the Taskforce's recommendation that a corporate manslaughter charge be put in place, though it is still under consideration by Justice Minister Judith Collins.

Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly said moves to strengthen worker participation in the workplace are particularly positive.

''The inclusion of a general duty to involve and consult with workers on health and safety matters, and strengthen the role of [health and safety] representatives, will give workers a voice in how health and safety is handled in their workplace.''

Business NZ Chief Executive Phil O'Reilly said the changes were a significant step in the right direction.

"Moving to a principles-based regime in which health and safety responses are tailored to the business rather than the current one-size-fits-all approach will be a real help to many businesses, as will a simpler approach to levy setting and other costs.''

O'Reilly  said he was also please to see responsibilities clarified and a provision for information and guidance for businesses.

It would be important for the Government to talk to business about the realities on the ground so that the law was fit for purpose for the New Zealand work environment, he said.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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