24 Aug 2022

Health and safety targets shifted for WorkSafe

7:33 am on 24 August 2022

The country's health and safety targets have been scrapped and the regulator's performance measures changed after it failed to meet most of them.

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Critics say changing metrics for workplace safety measures will mean progress by WorkSafe cannot easily be examined. Photo: RNZ / Samuel Rillstone

WorkSafe now has 40 new performance measures, which are being described as "waffly" and "vague" amid warnings it will reduce the agency's accountability.

But WorkSafe's minister and its policy monitor, the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment (MBIE), said the new performance measures were "better aligned" with its new strategy and would lead to "increased accountability and transparency".

In 2013, the National government set seven "health and safety system" targets when it established WorkSafe as part of its response to the 2010 Pike River Mine Explosion.

The targets were not specific to WorkSafe, but measured progress toward reducing work-related deaths and injuries.

The three key targets were to reduce workplace deaths, serious injuries, and injuries requiring more than a week away from work by 25 percent, by 2020.

Only one of those targets was achieved. Work-related deaths fell 35 percent, but serious injuries only reduced 9 percent, and injuries requiring more than a week off increased 12 percent over that time period.

Targets beyond 2020 were not set. The last year the targets were reported was 2020/2021.

One of the seven targets set was to reduce asbestos-related disease by 50 percent. That has been watered down to an "outcome indicator" which aims to reduce the number of people "exposed to carcinogens through their work". It will be tracked with an annual survey measuring how many workers have come into contact with asbestos.

WorkSafe's own performance measures also changed significantly after it failed to achieve about half of them over the past two years.

The agency now has 58 performance measures, "outcome indicators" or "impact measures". Forty of these were new, or required new baseline data, which meant comparisons with previous measures were "difficult", an independent review of WorkSafe warned.

The review, by consultants SageBush, published last week, found WorkSafe was unclear on its role and failing to intervene in key areas.

It also warned the new performance measures would make it "difficult to track trends in performance" since WorkSafe's inception, and it worried "hard data" such as the number of investigations and audits carried out each year would only be reported to MBIE and the Workplace Relations and Safety minister.

The number of WorkSafe Investigations and audits decreased significantly in recent years.

"This is potentially a lost opportunity for WorkSafe to highlight the range and volume of activities they are undertaking and changes over time. It will also reduce external accountability," it said.

'Vague targets'

National Party Workplace Relations and Safety spokesperson Paul Goldsmith said the new measures were "waffly" and a "cop-out".

"To drop hard targets because we're not making progress on them is a cop out.

"We need clear accountable targets ... a hard target like reducing workplace accidents leading to more than a week of work by 25 percent over the next five years. Instead, what we've seen from this government is a replacement of those hard targets with waffly ones ... or very vague targets which are hard to pin down."

Otago University law lecturer Simon Connell, who researches accident law, said it "makes sense" to find metrics that capture WorkSafe's impact on the health and safety sector.

"But I'm not sure of the ones that they seem to have settled on to do that."

It was important the right metrics were used so the agency understood whether the resources it was using, and where they put them, were justified, he said.

WorkSafe responds

The new metrics made it easier for WorkSafe to show its impact, which was one of the recommendations in the SageBush review, WorkSafe said in a statement.

"Measuring and reporting our work in this way will increase accountability and transparency. Activity and volume reporting is useful, provides context to our performance and will continue to be reported in various forms."

Speaking to RNZ before the SageBush review was published, WorkSafe chief executive Phil Parkes said the new measures reflected its new strategic aims to improve "safe work, healthy work and equitable outcomes".

But New Zealand was failing in some areas, he said.

"Serious injury has not reduced to the extent that I would have liked to see. And similarly occupational disease, which actually kills more people than acute injury, has still got a long way to go."

Between 750 and 900 people died from work-related ill health and between 5000 and 6000 were hospitalised each year, according to WorkSafe estimates.

Parkes said New Zealand was behind other comparable nations because it was a "newer country".

"Other countries overseas have been doing health and safety for longer and they've been doing a better job; they've had a better regulator and they're more used to being regulated."

Workplace injuries continued to rise because the economy had grown, he said.

"Of course, we would love those injuries to go down, but it's not surprising that as the economy has grown since Pike River and since the creation of WorkSafe that the number of slips, trips and falls and injuries caused by vehicles has also grown."

Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Wood said he supported WorkSafe's approach to reducing harm.

"WorkSafe's performance measures were changed to better align with its strategic outcomes framework. It is important that these are aligned, particularly when an entity considers its framework, as WorkSafe has done," he said.

He would continue to receive monthly updates on WorkSafe's activity volumes and the agency would report to parliament through the annual review process, Wood said.

"In addition, WorkSafe reports publicly on a quarterly and annual reporting basis and is monitored by MBIE through this process. This allows for appropriate transparency and visibility of the volume and nature of regulatory intervention activity being undertaken."

Though no longer required to, MBIE said WorkSafe had indicated it would continue to report this information in its next annual report.

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