9 Mar 2023

WorkSafe boss 'deeply concerned' some company directors don't understand their job

5:27 pm on 9 March 2023
A sign warns of hazards on a building site

A series of reports as part of the study made repeated calls for better guidance and education. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Company directors are falling short of their legal obligations to keep workers safe, seven years after law changes sparked by the Pike River mine disaster.

That is the finding of a new study by the industry that says company governance must get better, and WorkSafe must do more to sanction directors and executives.

"Health and safety governance has not been the catalyst" for change it was meant to be when the laws spurred on by the mine disaster came into force in 2016, it said.

A series of reports as part of the study, replete with a lot of management jargon, list 17 recommendations.

Central to these were repeated calls for better guidance and education

"We were not able to identify any governance materials that provided detailed advice" on health and safety, one report said.

Another recommendation calls for clearer, stronger enforcement by WorkSafe:

"We heard that the regulators have not set a clear baseline of expected officer behaviours and actions, and that there is limited use of sanctions," it said.

"This is not fair to those boards, officers and leaders who are fulfilling their duties where others are not.

"The current WorkSafe position statement is not enough."

That did not go down well with WorkSafe - though the agency did say it was "excited" about the study overall as it showed that industry wanted to step up.

"I'm deeply concerned that there are directors out there that don't understand their job," WorkSafe chief executive Phil Parkes said.

It was well known that the 2016 law changes put more obligations on directors, and opened them up to more powers of investigation and penalties, he said.

The last concrete block is removed from the 30m seal at Pike River Mine.

New health and safety laws spurred on by the Pike River mine disaster came into force in 2016. Photo: Pike River Recovery Agency / Supplied

"The message is really clear, directors should be using this best-practice guidance.

"If not, we'll hold them to account."

There was longstanding criticism that WorkSafe does not do enough, especially to go after directors, as those prosecutions were typically more difficult than to prosecute a company.

WorkSafe has initiated 11 prosecutions against directors in seven years - five of them successful, five of them ongoing and one withdrawn.

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WorkSafe chief executive Phil Parkes Photo: WorkSafe

Parkes said those 11 made him "very confident" they were holding directors to account.

Regardless, "we do think we could do more".

"We're doubling down, we're being very clear with industry that we expect directors to do better."

The study signalled the industry itself stepping up, Parkes said.

"We're excited by this report. It fills a gap which says that directors are not doing a good enough job.

"If directors follow the best-practice guidance, we're confident that health and safety will improve - if they don't, we will hold them to account for not meeting their responsibilities."

WorkSafe funded the study.

Its very wordy reports were also big on talking up a new workplace safety vision, of "capable leaders integrating health and safety into curious and courageous governance discussions and decisions that are context-rich and demonstrate care for workers".

The Institute of Directors helped set up the 'better governance project', alongside the business leaders' and general managers health and safety forum groups.

No women and no Māori were on the five-man project team that produced the various reports.

One of the five, Greg Lazzaro, said that did not matter, as they had heard from a "vast array" of people, and that when it came to phase two and delivering on the changes, all those various influences would come through.

Māori suffer acute injuries at work at a rate 55 percent higher than non-Māori. WorkSafe refreshed its Māori strategy in 2021 after failing to meet targets.

Missing figures

Labour MP Michael Wood

Workplace Safety Minister Michael Wood says WorkSafe is focused on its core task of reducing deaths and serious injuries. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

Parkes, appearing at a parliamentary select committee on Wednesday, was quizzed on why WorkSafe had taken the basic figures on the numbers and targets for reducing work fatalities and serious injuries out of its annual report, when they used to be there.

A consultant advised them to do this because meeting the targets was a society-wide effort, not just WorkSafe's, he said.

At the same meeting, Workplace Safety Minister Michael Wood said WorkSafe was focused on its core task of reducing deaths and serious injuries.

However, WorkSafe has recorded significant drops across many of its core watchdog operations in the past two years, even as its staff numbers have risen by 20 percent to more than 700.

It did 158 investigations, against a 2016-21 average of 233.

Its enforcement activities dropped to 7300 last year, from an average 9500 (2018-21).

Its Notifications of Concern numbered 2500 last year, down from an average 4700 (2017-20).

Its assessment of workplaces for safety dropped to 9500, from an average 14,000 (2017-21).

Parkes told RNZ this drop off was due to Covid-19, and things would now ramp back up.

WorkSafe was also spending much more on contractors (almost $20m) than before, much of it on an IT upgrade that has been delayed because of its "increased complexity", its annual review shows.

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