2 Sep 2022

WorkSafe's warning to construction industry to care for employees met with scepticism

7:23 pm on 2 September 2022
The Paddington sits unfinished as construction company Armstrong Downes announces liquidation

File image. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

WorkSafe is warning it will get tough on the people in charge of construction projects who put their workers at risk - but the nations' biggest construction union says "words are cheap".

Since January last year, at least two construction workers have died every month and one person a day has been seriously injured.

Five workers are still in Auckland's Middlemore hospital being treated for burns after an explosion at a construction site a week ago.

WorkSafe chief executive Phil Parkers said too many people were dying due to a lack of care in the construction sector and there needed to be a significant change in the way the construction industry.

WorkSafe had a new strategy, which Parkers hoped would result in significant change.

Everybody who had influence and control over construction work needed to change how they do business and stop putting cost-cutting ahead of people's safety, he said.

"Every time we see this (cost-cutting) we see risk exported down the supply chain and we see vulnerable workers being harmed or killed at work.

"So I'm being very clear - if you are further up the supply chain and you have influence and control over how construction projects are done - we expect you to put people ahead of price. "

New Zealand's biggest construction union Amalgamated Workers Union's national secretary Maurice Davis, would love to see a safer environment for construction workers, but said just telling people to value lives over cost cutting would not make a difference.

"Words are cheap. We heard that after Pike River. What's changed?"

What was really needed was more inspectors on the ground and tougher legislation to penalise people who created unsafe work environments, he said.

"I think corporate manslaughter is that legislation to actually make that accountability start at the board all the way down the supply chain down to the worker on the ground. Because it's normally the worker that always gets killed, who gets injured. It's not the CEO, not the board members, it's the workers."

Edgecity Builders director and chairperson of New Zealand Certified Builders Nick Farrelly said more penalties and more inspectors could make a difference, but in additional he would like to see more training.

"They should actually subsidise possibly the training so more people go and do the training, and make it part of the requirements to become a licensed building practitioner. "

Health and safety lawyer and partner at Chapman Tripp Garth Gallaway said all WorkSafe had done was restate the legal obligations of the construction companies.

For several years the construction sector had been one of WorkSafe's top priorities, with little change in the statistics, he said.

"There really does seem to be a resourcing issue here. They only have a certain number of inspectors. The inspectors are good people doing good work but there is a limit to them."

Gallaway said he feared that if WorkSafe put an increased focus on construction without any increase in funding it would lead to other areas of its work suffering.