8 Aug 2013

Major overhaul of workplace health and safety

2:15 pm on 8 August 2013

Labour Minister Simon Bridges has announced what he describes as the most significant overhaul of workplace health and safety in 20 years.

The Government on Wednesday released its response to recommendations made by the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety, which was set up following the deaths of 29 men in the Pike River coalmine on the West Coast in 2010.

Simon Bridges: ad hoc discounting makes a significant saving.

Simon Bridges: ad hoc discounting makes a significant saving. Photo: NZ GOVERNMENT

As a result of the taskforce's work, the Government will introduce a new law based on the Australian system. It will include stronger penalties for individuals who break the law, including fines of up to $600,000 and up to five years' imprisonment.

Reckless corporations will face fines of up to $3 million and courts will have stronger powers to order them to take certain actions.

Mr Bridges says new health and safety regulator WorkSafe, which is to take over in December, will target high-risk sectors such as construction and forestry: "We are focusing not on ergonomic chairs or paper cuts, if you like, but on acute, chronic and catastrophic harm."

The minister says the Government will also increase the regulator's funding from about $54 million a year now to almost $80 million a year by 2018. That will come from an increase to the existing health and safety levy.

He says the changes are owed to the Pike River families and the families of all those killed in workplaces throughout the country.

The Council of Trade Unions and Business New Zealand have welcomed the reforms. Business New Zealand spokesperson Paul Mackay says they are a significant step in the right direction, as the current law is not fit for purpose.

A lawyer for the Pike River families, Colin Smith, says they are taking comfort in knowing the 29 men did not die in vain.

The Government accepted most of the taskforce's recommendations - but is still considering whether to introduce corporate manslaughter. The Labour Party says it is concerning that this seems to have been sidelined in Wednesday's announcement.