30 Jul 2021

WorkSafe probes truckers' poor pay in safety investigation

9:41 am on 30 July 2021

Whether truck drivers are increasing the risks on the road because they are poorly paid and tired has emerged as a flashpoint in a study on supply chain safety.

Horizontal shot of a generic white tractor trailer truck on a highway.

File photo. Photo: 123RF

The study done for WorkSafe recommends improving health and safety laws to hold companies more responsible, and rewarding those that are.

Researchers for the 250-page study spent 11 months interviewing eight groups including drivers, businesses and regulators, and found they all agreed that "driver fatigue and health (both physical and mental)" are areas of "serious concern".

They also largely agreed that how transport contracts are set up, and commercial constraints, "are leading to poorly remunerated drivers and lower safety standards".

But the talkgroups emerged with no solution to the pay/safety quandary.

"There was little agreement on how to move forward and where the money would come from."

That's no surprise to Nick Leggett of the Road Transport Forum which represents 3000 truck companies.

"I mean, this is where the rub is," he said.

"We can agree on what the problems are, but the solution is always harder."

Even so, Leggett said the study is valuable for raising awareness that responsibility lies across the supply chain instead of leaving it at the door of truckers, who were price-takers, not price-makers.

This was best tackled sector-by-sector, with livestock and supermarket industry supply chains currently under scrutiny, he said.

On pay, the WorkSafe study calls for more investigation.

It calls for the same on fatigue, to find out what systemic factors are causing it.

Other researchers say that there remains a lack of evidence linking fatigue back to supply chains or pay.

"In between fatigue and pay is the fact that people are doing long hours," the study said.

The study presents five case studies, one of them about a forklift at a major distribution centre that hit and badly injured a truck driver - in that case, factors included ad hoc safety systems, a tight delivery schedule and long unloading times that caused pressure.

WorkSafe ordered up the study in the face of poor work practices and stubbornly high rates of work-related vehicle deaths and serious injuries that, in 2019, added up to 57 fatal crashes, 170 serious injuries and 521 minor injuries involving trucks.

Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood told RNZ the government was committed to strengthening commercial transport regulation to improve safety.

The Transport Ministry was looking at whether to make electronic logbooks mandatory to enforce limits on work hours for truckers. Many use paper logbooks.

Wood said he expected WorkSafe and other agencies to help implement the study's recommendations.

ShopCare, the supply chain health and safety group set up by various industries in 2019, declined to comment.

ShopCare's website says it exists to "drive safety leadership to increase awareness, positively change behaviours, and save lives".

New Zealand lags on transport industry reform behind Australia, where a national "Safe Rates" campaign that links transport workers' deaths to bankrupt companies, has run for years and where supermarket giant Coles recently signed a charter on fairness and safety.

South Korea has picked up on Australia's lead to address pressures on its drivers, who are nearly all owner-drivers and don't have employee protections, a situation increasingly mirrored in this country.

The WorkSafe study makes 13 wide-ranging recommendations, including for stronger legislation and regulation.

But for First Union organiser Jared Abbott, this jars with its other recommendation to set up a cross-industry group to keep the insights coming, which WorkSafe will do.

"It's very promising the report identifies these key issues ... and the need to go down this path," Abbott said.

"Where it lacks is to say the way to get there is to set up an industry accord.

"What we've seen in the past is these kind of forums just get heavily outnumbered because business has a lot more resource."

Safe tendering processes were already legislated elsewhere, and the key was to regulate for them, not default to self-regulation, Abbott added.

"We still seem to be pretending like we don't know entirely what the solution is."

Leggett also put emphasis on regulators doing more and on WorkSafe, NZTA and police linking up.

He said truckers need regulator backing as they lacked power to influence big customers to make systems safer.

Business told the researchers they are already reviewing how early in the morning truckers must hit the road, are making clear they expect them to work below the legal number of hours, are improving reststop facilities and are introducing controversial driver-monitoring technology, among other things.

The study recommends government agencies lead the way by ensuring their transport contracts put health and safety front and centre.

The government is currently reviewing laws that set how truckers use logbooks and how many hours they can work - at present, 13 hours a day, with some breaks.

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