Changing the culture of our workplaces

  • Margaret Wilson

After three years of consultation and controversy the Health and Safety in Employment Amendment Bill was passed by Parliament in the dying hours of the Parliamentary year. Labour Minister Margaret Wilson looks back on the genesis of the Bill and forward to the cultural changes the legislation is designed to produce.

The health and safety record of this country is appalling. So it was very important that this year we had another go at changing the regulatory environment and at better resourcing the Occupational Safety and Health Service to do its job.

The most notable feature of the debate has been the concentration on the least important part of the legislation - the enforcement provisions. In the Amendment we are endeavouring to create a culture where there is zero tolerance for behaviours that cause accidents and ill-health in the workplace. Any focus on penalties is a failure to understand the Amendment. Good employers do understand. As one said recently, "I don't care about penalties because we're working, with OSH's input, to have an injury free workplace. So penalties are irrelevant".

A second distraction over the past year has been the emphasis on stress as though this was a new issue. It is not. The Court of Appeal has already talked about stress being a matter that employers have to be concerned about, as do employees. The drafting of the new Act makes it clear what the expectation is.

A real issue has been the concern expressed by voluntary agencies of the effect of the legislation on them. I am satisfied we have reached a compromise that allows them to go about their business with confidence, but makes it clear there is a need for care and planning in volunteer activity.

To get back to our aim however, there has to be a culture shift in our workplaces. 'She'll be right mate' when it comes to health and safety is unfortunately all too often the way it is done. People cut corners. They cut corners to save costs, or because they feel immortal, or because to some extent, being a reasonably young society, we take risks. And while that can be positive on occasions, it can also have disastrous consequences.

Achieving the culture change we aspire too will not happen overnight, but I see OSH as the front line, and I am very conscious of the need to develop and extend their ability to support employers and employees. What we have tried to do with the Employment Relations Act is very much the same, and I believe it has worked - there has been ongoing dialogue, new practices, and changes in implementation to achieve the aim of better workplace relationships.

The other lever in the culture change is the focus on employee involvement. The key provision that is important in the new legislation is participation from everyone in the guidelines or rules that will govern their workplace. The idea is to get ownership, to say 'this is my problem too.' It is not just an employer's problem, it is everyone's. And it is those people who have the capacity to be able to make the changes - sometimes it is the employers, sometimes the employees, sometimes people outside the workplace - that need to be identified and asked to work together for the solution.

The emphasis must always be on prevention. Prevention comes through firstly providing good quality accurate information, and then by ensuring that people who have that information understand it.

It is OSH's responsibility to help people establish practical preventive measures, not just to enforce the legislation, which is unfortunately the impression that is often given. And there are avenues for OSH and ACC to work together more closely.

If the opportunities in the Act are taken I expect to see a lowering in the statistics, in the number of deaths and serious injuries we have. That's the number one objective.

And I would like to think the second is we will have more people thinking about workplace safety in a different way. Not just seeing it as enforcement, but from a positive point of view, of enriching their lives by having safer and healthier workplaces. A number of workplaces are achieving that already and sharing that good practice. This is something I will be encouraging businesses and unions to do more of over the coming year.

Having made sure the regulatory framework is in place and there are enough resources to make it happen, my role now is to go out and champion the changes. OSH's role will be to provide the information needed to get everyone involved in the process, a task they will start by implementing an active information campaign.

The opportunity we are creating is exciting; I believe the criticisms of the past year will look irrelevant as our safety record improves.