Guest Post: Health and safety critics barking up the wrong tree

A guest post by , Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety:

News flash on health and safety – kids can still climb trees!

Recent reports that children at a Wairarapa primary school will no longer be able to climb trees because of fears the school could be fined is an example of ridiculous overreaction to the new the Health and Safety at Work Act, due to come into force on Monday 4 April. Readers can be sure that the overreaction is a result of misinformation, which has led to school principals talking of irrational responses like above. The legislation simply does not prevent any such activities. But there appears to be a few Chicken Lickens in the form of health and safety advisers who are drumming up fear as a business tactic. This is unfortunate, unhelpful and just plain untrue.

It is of course true that schools have a responsibility to take practical steps to keep their staff, students and other visitors to the school safe. This is nothing new. The current Health and Safety in Employment Act requires it. The concerns about the potential for fines of up to $600,000 overlooks that fact that they can currently be fined $500,000. The new fine is lower in real terms than it was under the previous 23 year old legislation. It is also for the most reckless breaches of the Act.  A child falling out of a tree doesn’t come close!

So kids can continue to climb trees, play games in the school yard, go on adventure activities, trips to the beach, school camps and any number of other things schools do. What the staff are required to do is take a sensible approach to identifying hazards and risks and ensuring they are managed. Cotton wool and bans on tree climbing aren’t necessary or appropriate.

What will the Act mean for employers and business? Well, for those who already have sound and sensible health and safety practices, not a lot.  This isn’t a one-size fits all approach to the legislation. The Act is designed to target risk proportionately.  Businesses should be aware of their risks and take reasonably practicable steps to minimise or eliminate them. For higher risk activities like mining, quarrying, risky manufacturing and so on there will be a greater focus on risks. There are also changes to responsibilities for others in the workplace.  Many workplaces have a variety of entities working side by side (in the Act they are known as Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking, or PCBUs), and they need to work together to ensure not only their staff but staff of other PCBUs are kept safe from harm.  PCBUs just need to coordinate, consult, cooperate and coordinate to ensure everyone is safe.  A good example of PCBUs working together would be a construction site which may have a plethora of PCBUs working together, from the main contractor to sub-traders, project managers, architects, quantity surveyors and traffic controllers.  All are separate businesses but all are exposed to similar risks.  Effective communication is key.

Another myth being perpetuated is that somehow sports clubs and voluntary organisations will be wrapped in more red tape resulting in people withdrawing from volunteering or holding sports events. Again this is nonsense. The Act has adopted exactly the same legal framework that existed under the previous law for voluntary associations. The Government was clear that the current framework was managing risk adequately and transferred it into the new regime.

It is important that everyone – workers, managers, the self-employed and directors alike – need to understand what the Act means for them and take steps to comply with it, but for low risk organisations such as schools there is little change. I am also working with WorkSafe New Zealand to ensure that they take an educative approach in the early stages of the new Act. We are just at the start of the process and engaging with business rather than being heavy handed will be the key to its success. This is particularly important as governments can change all the rules and regulations they like but unless we can change people’s behaviours and attitudes to health and safety we won’t make the step change required to ensure reduced serious harm and death at work.

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