24 Jul 2015

Workplace safety bill returns to Parliament

7:27 pm on 24 July 2015

The Government has confirmed new workplace safety legislation will not require small businesses to have elected health and safety representatives.

Minister Michael Woodhouse in question time.

Workplace Safety Minister Michael Woodhouse - speaking in Parliament earlier in 2015 Photo: RNZ / Alexander Robertson

Opposition parties and trade unions have accused the Government of gutting the Health and Safety Reform Bill, which was reported back to Parliament today.

But Workplace Safety Minister Michael Woodhouse rejected their criticism.

"All businesses large and small, low risk, high risk, are still required to have effective worker participation in their health and safety plans.

"But they'll be able to design systems that is most appopriate for their small, low risk businesses. To say that there's a one-size-fits-all approach to this is, I think, old thinking."

Mr Woodhouse said small businesses, for instance, could ensure their workers go on health and safety training courses.

But he acknowledged there would be little in the law to hold them to that.

If a business failed to properly address its health and safety obligations, that was most likely to be identified during an investigation into an accident, he said.

Mr Woodhouse also said small businesses in high risk industries would still have to have elected health and safety representatives.

The Government is yet to determine which industries are high risk, but the minister indicated forestry, for instance, would likely be one industry in which small businesses would have to have elected health and safety representatives.

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Small forestry businesses are likely to still need elected health and safety representatives. Photo: 123RF

Mr Woodhouse also ruled out incorporating corporate manslaughter in the legislation.

Instead, he said the Government would make further changes to the sentencing guidance in the bill to ensure courts specifically considered death or harm, both actual and potential, when sentencing.

Other changes in the bill include ensuring volunteers remained covered by the same provisions as the present law. It also relaxes the provisions for farmers.

While the bill has been reported back by Parliament's transport and industrial relations select committee, three opposition parties - Labour, the Greens and New Zealand First - all included minority reports opposing it.

Both Labour and the Greens said the bill had been substantially weakened, particularly by removing the obligation on all businesses to have elected health and safety representatives.

The Council of Trade Unions said it was appalled by the report back of the bill and accused the Prime Minister, John Key, of having broken his promise that the law would take no step backwards.

CTU president Helen Kelly said the changes to the bill were not minor.

"We are especially concerned that the Government has stripped away so much of workers' rights to take an effective role in their own health and safety. The health and safety issues and risks in small firms are at least as great as in any other business."

Ms Kelly said the Government was disenfranchising workers because it has listened to small businesses, which did not want to make the safety of their workers a priority.

"This is a major neglect of duty to present the law with these changes and a further betrayal of those that died at Pike River," she said.

Business New Zealand chief executive Phil O'Reilly, however, said the changes were sensible as employers were after a law that was fit for purpose.

"Business people were telling us they wanted to contribute to a healthy and safe workforce - of course they do - but the problem was, they saw a potential over-bureaucratisation and too much unnecessary rule-making around the whole thing.

"What Government has suggested, particularly at that small business end of the labour market, looks sensible."

He said the eyes of the business community would be on WorkSafe to ensure it worked with them effectively.

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