30 Aug 2015

NZers too tolerant of risky behaviour

From Insight, 8:12 am on 30 August 2015

A culture of risk is embedded in the soul of the nation.

299 people have died in work since 2010, according to the latest published statistics compiled by WorkSafe NZ.

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Photo: 123rf.com

The sentiment referring to risk was one of the key findings from the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety two years ago, which stated:

 "Our national culture includes a high level of tolerance for risk, and negative perceptions of health and safety. Kiwi stoicism, deference to authority, laid-back complacency and suspicion of red tape all affect behaviour from the boardroom to the shop floor".

Since that report, which was essentially prompted by the 29 deaths in Pike River Mine explosions, what has changed?

Certainly forestry has made some safety gains. From a peak of 10 deaths in forestry in 2013, a year later the rate reduced to one. But losses of life in agriculture remain stubbornly high.

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Photo: Supplied

These statistics show the number of fatal work-related incidents reported to WorkSafe NZ under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992. They do not include deaths in the maritime or aviation sectors or fatalities due to work-related road crashes.

So how many more workers could saved? Could fatalities on the job ever fall to zero?

"There are always going to be deaths because we're always doing risky things. And we do it not only in the workplace but in our private lives", said Bryce Wilkinson, a fellow at think-tank The New Zealand Initiative.

"There is an argument that taking risks is sort of essential to our well being. People bungee jump when there's no need for them to do so", he said.

Trying to change attitudes to risk and complacency were a challenge for everyone, not least New Zealand's employers. There's broad agreement in industry that there was a limit to what new health and safety laws can achieve.

"I think the legislation and the regulations are going to be a critical foundation for that culture," said Francois Barton of the Business Leaders' Health and Safety Forum.

"I don't think culture is completely separate to regulation and legislation, but culture is a lot bigger than just the law. So the law's important, but what's really critical is that we're using every tool in the kit.

"So what's the role of senior leaders, of directors, of the marketplace? What's the role of education providers, of unions and workers? What's the role of the regulator? All of those pieces need to be working together if we're going to get change," he said.

Another sector which has seen a reduction in workplace deaths is construction. There are strong views in that industry that it's the culture of a workplace that will keep people out of harm's way, not necessarily new laws.

Geoff Hunt of Hawkins construction and Geoff Eban of Wellington International Airport

Geoff Hunt of Hawkins construction and Geoff Eban of Wellington International Airport Photo: ( RNZ / Gareth Thomas )

"I have a background in aviation and it comes from an understanding that having all the legislation and regulation in the world, whether it be about quality of safety, is only part of the solution", said Geoff Eban, general manager of infrastructure, facilities and planning at Wellington International Airport.

"It's the culture of the people doing the work that is tantamount".

Wellington International Airport is extending its terminal and will create more parking spaces for aircraft.

Mr Eban said along with contractor Hawkins Construction the airport was changing its culture through positive reinforcement.

"We've got a big campaign that looks at things that people have done well and rewarding that through all sorts of different methods...such as...a monthly barbecue where we give awards to people who've done safe things and demonstrated to their peers how they can do things safely. That's where you'll change culture", says Mr Eban.

Again, culture is the watchword at lobby group Federated Farmers.

Chief executive Graham Smith said it was making efforts to take health and safety training to the paddock, the scene of heavy workplace casualties.

"We're talking about culture. We're talking about a cultural change, and that's something that can't be left to any one organisation. The starting point is that we all need to recognise that only we can make a difference. It's our collective ability that will ultimately make a difference."