23 Nov 2016

Safety law fails to curb workplace death rate

11:21 am on 23 November 2016

Sweeping changes to health and safety laws have so far done little to curb the country's high workplace death toll.

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In the year to date, 43 people have died at work - the same number for all of 2015.

The new workplace rules came into effect in April, having been drafted in response to the Pike River mining tragedy of 2010.

They were expected to put a greater emphasis on safe working practices by requiring businesses to identify work-related risks and do what is "reasonably practicable" to eliminate or manage them.

They also introduced a $600,000 fine for people held responsible for workplace accidents.

The government was hoping the new laws would lead to a 25 percent reduction in workplace deaths and injuries by 2020.

But nearly eight months in, there have been no changes.

Labour Party associate workplace relations and safety spokesperson Sue Moroney said it was hugely disappointing.

She said the government should have a hard look at what was going on.

"We should have, and could have expected the workplace fatalities to be dropping. We hoped that that would be the case."

"It looks as though we will get to the end of 2016 with a worse record in workplace deaths than what we had before the law was passed," Ms Moroney said.

"The concerning thing for me is that we've still got agriculture being the sector that has the highest death rate. That means the government hasn't got it right in that area."

WorkSafe chief executive Gordon MacDonald said it would will take time for the new health and safety laws to translate to better practices in the workplace.

Mr MacDonald said it involved a widespread change in behaviour, systems and culture.

"We're talking about all of that coming from a particularly low base where New Zealand was, in some respects, twice as bad as Australia in terms of its stats and three times as bad as the UK."

Workplace Safety Minister Michael Woodhouse said the figures could not be looked at in isolation and he was not disappointed by them.

"Last year was the lowest rate on record, materially below the sorts of low 50s numbers that we've been having in recent years."

"The economy is growing strongly, so while we have far more people in the workforce, we have about the same fatality rate, so it is trending down in that regard," Mr Woodhouse said.

A controversial aspect of the new regulations is that they do not classify agriculture as a high risk sector - meaning farm workers are not entitled to health and safety representatives.

However, 15 of the 43 fatalities so far this year have been in that industry.

Federated Farmers' health and safety spokesperson Katie Milne argued that a large proportion of those deaths had been on smaller lifestyle blocks, or were recreational quad bike users, assumed to be riding on farms.

She said safety practices were changing on farm.

"The cultural change of actually thinking more broadly about health and safety and being more conscious about reminding people of the dangers."

"We're trying, and we want to see it come down as well, but it is a journey that we're on. It's not an instant fix," Ms Milne said.

But Green Party MP Denise Roche said was clear that nothing had changed.

She said given the amount of consultation that occurred when the law was passed through Parliament, she would have expected more.

"The assurances we got from all sorts of different employers, that they were working on culture."

"I don't think that that's enough and I would have expected more by now."

Ms Roche said at this rate, there was no way the government would meet its target of reducing workplace deaths and injuries by a quarter by 2020.