17 Feb 2020

Workplace deaths: WorkSafe making amends for 'low quality data'

10:47 am on 17 February 2020

Government agency WorkSafe is promising to clamp down over "hidden" deaths that are fuelling the tally of workplace fatalities.

Construction site.

Funding from ACC is helping WorkSafe to get a clearer idea of how many New Zealanders die on the job every year. Photo: 123rf.com

The official count in 2018 of 42 deaths shot up to 86 last year prior to the Whakaari/White Island tragedy; the total in the end was 108 deaths for the year.

WorkSafe is now including ACC work-related death numbers after realising it had entertained a blind spot over transport deaths for years.

"Last year, we saw the clear picture for the first time," WorkSafe's new chief executive Phil Parkes told RNZ.

He is changing tack with the help of $150 million of new funding from ACC.

But even as that is under way, the agency is being criticised for doing fewer investigations - it says it is prioritising resources into intervening sooner to stop accidents, so it doesn't have to investigate afterwards.

Also, the police are making very few health and safety inquiries into road crashes on behalf of WorkSafe.

The Transport Agency has so far not replaced the truck operator safety rating system it scrapped a year ago; it was flawed but at least it gave truckers a big incentive to fix their rigs before they took them in for a certificate of fitness check.

Parkes admits it all adds up to a system that's sub-optimal - but he does not admit they have dropped the ball.

WorkSafe chief executive Phil Parkes

WorkSafe chief executive Phil Parkes Photo: RNZ / Phil Pennington

"I'm deeply concerned that the number of fatalities has not continued to drop in line with our expectations," he told RNZ.

"The data hasn't been there in terms of one place where we could look at it. The data set was low quality and dispersed across the system.

"It was hidden for sure because it was in these data sets, but it hasn't been pulled together."

Until now.

Yet in 2013, the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety was already reporting how it was "struck by how little knowledge" there was about headline fatality figures, "and how unreliable they were".

Read the taskforce's full report (PDF:4.4MB)

It warned: "The Taskforce is left with a profound unease about the quality of data in New Zealand and the fact that this had previously not been detected by the agencies responsible for the data.

"We are deeply concerned that we do not have a clear, reliable picture ... the Taskforce believes that data improvements, vital to advancing our understanding and targeting of issues and to monitoring and evaluating outcomes accurately, need to be addressed as a priority."

It has taken till the last few months to achieve that.

Parkes rejected a suggestion that WorkSafe's leadership team or board could have prioritised getting better data sooner.

"I don't think that was viable. But I do acknowledge if we'd have had the information faster, we could have acted faster."

And done what?

"So we specifically need to change our focus from the existing sectors, which are construction, manufacturing, agriculture, forestry, and add a new sector, which is transport, postal and warehousing."

Under its new consolidated death counting approach, the transport sector has leapt to the top of the most dangerous sectors for the first time.

"We set up a new team, and we're commissioning research now to understand more about where that harm is happening," Parkes said.

Its research to date has produced five focuses:

  • Reduce injuries and fatalities in the trucking industry.
  • Address health and safety risks created in the supply chain from outsourcing and contracting arrangements.
  • Safer vehicle operation off road.
  • Seatbelt use on and off road.
  • Better traffic management practices at worksites.
  • Accident on mountainous road, motor vehicle accident, car wreck. Long vehicle overturned and lying in ditch on side

    Reducing injuries and fatalities in the trucking industry have become a stronger priority for WorkSafe recently. Photo: 123RF

    WorkSafe would be going in to inspect many more transport operators, on-road or off-road, Parkes said.

    It has $15m of new funding per year for 10 years from ACC to do this, which he said would now be split five ways, on the existing focus areas plus transport.

    Industry insiders told RNZ that improving truck and light vehicle fleet management is crucial.

    However, the NZTA truck operator safety rating system (ORS) did not have fleet management as one of its three ranking tools for truck and bus companies; a five-star rating had meant an operator had to get a certificate of fitness only once every year, instead of every six months, so a big financial incentive.

    Parkes was unable to say if WorkSafe was telling the Transport Agency it must include fleet management, in its redesign of the system.

    The Transport Agency said the old system had partly worked, but the sector agreed it needed to assess "a wider range of relevant factors". It gave RNZ no timeframe for launching a replacement system.

    As for WorkSafe's other major partner in cutting transport fatalities, the police, it has a Memorandum of Understanding to do up to 1500 hours of health and safety inquiries a year into road crashes. Figures indicate the police have not been doing many inquiries.

    Several factors had "degraded the accuracy" of some of the rating system's data, including a reduction in how much police roadside inspection data was being input, said the agency.

    Parkes defended the level of investigation, both by the police and his agency.

    "We investigate if we think there is an underlying work issue more than the individual traffic incident," he said.

    It was what "the police can do directly plus what we do".

    "We have memorandums of understanding about who carries out investigations, about exchange of information, about joint task forces, so all of that is in place. But what I'm acknowledging is, if it was working optimally, if it was working the best it could be, then we wouldn't be seeing the rate of harm."

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