Speech to Safeguard National Health and Safety Conference

Good afternoon everyone. It’s great to be with you all today before we wrap up Day One of the annual Safeguard National Health and Safety Conference.

Thank you to the organisers and sponsors of this conference, for the chance to talk to you about the upcoming health and safety consultation.

I would like to acknowledge the health and safety experts, leaders and practitioners in attendance for this two-day event.

By now, you have heard from local and international speakers about best practice health and safety, which I hope everyone can learn from.   

Today I want to talk to you about the beginnings of our consultation on the reform of our work health and safety system, which I’m sure you will all have a keen interest in. 

Last Friday I had the pleasure of attending Fieldays to announce the opening of public consultation on people’s experiences with New Zealand’s work health and safety system. 

I am keen to hear from businesses and workers about what is working well and what could be improved.

New Zealanders expect and deserve their family members to return home safe and healthy at the end of each and every workday. And businesses deserve clear work health and safety legislation that is cost effective and easy to comply with.

Like everyone in this room, I want New Zealand to have the best possible health and safety system where businesses can focus on keeping workers safe without taking on unnecessary burden. 

However, I’m aware that there are clear challenges in the health and safety system that need addressing.

Whether you’re a farmer, a teacher, a builder, or a health and safety professional, everyone seems to have their battle stories of having to navigate the current health and safety system.

As Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety, I want to make sure businesses and organisations are focused on addressing the things that cause workers harm. They should not be caught up in unnecessary steps or trying to interpret and navigate complex or perplexing rules and regulations.

New Zealand’s health and safety culture can be summed up by the sea of orange road cones that have taken over the country. While those notorious cones probably do improve health and safety in some places, in other situations their prevalence just doesn’t make any sense.

Businesses and community organisations spend a huge amount of money trying to keep people safe, but it’s worthwhile asking: are the rules and expectations proportionate to the actual risks, and when should common sense prevail?

These questions are even more pertinent given the complexity of risks PCBUs [Person Conducting a Business or Undertaking] must face. 

Retailers must now protect their workers against the devastating threat of aggression and crime. 

Society’s awareness and responsiveness to mental health issues continues to increase, and there is an expectation PCBUs manage work-related mental health risks, including bullying and harassment, work-related stress, and fatigue.

Farmers have had to think a lot about the application of the law. Their beloved farms are often their homes for themselves and their workers, and places of play for their family, and I know that many are worried about personal liability.

The scope of the health and safety system can appear exceedingly wide, and the personal liabilities can be severe, which is all the more reason why the health and safety system needs to be clear, sensible, proportionate and effective. 

Lawyers and company directors should not have to be kept up late at night anguishing over what “so far as is reasonably practicable” means.

I’m also aware that there are frustrations with the regulatory system itself. Health and safety regulations take a long time to develop – as some of you in this room have probably painfully experienced. 

But there are places where regulatory change can’t keep up with progress and actual practice. There is a cost to developing regulation that could quickly become out-of-date or out of step with actual practice, and there’s an opportunity cost too. 

It’s also important that we get the balance right between excessive regulation on the one hand and ambiguity arising from a lack of regulation on the other hand.

The Health and Safety at Work Act is now almost ten years old. Now is the right time for us to take a step back and look at what’s working and what needs to change.

My aim with this consultation is to understand more about what is and isn’t working within our work health and safety system.

The public consultation that I am holding is necessarily broad in scope. I want to know and understand:

  • how businesses make decisions about health and safety, the reasons behind these decisions and their costs
  • what businesses and workers think of the information available to help you understand your duties, what information you use, and how easy is it to find
  • where the law is not working – including where it is too detailed or not detailed enough
  • and which parts of the law you think are working well.

I’m not afraid to get into the more uncomfortable areas for government too, including the quality of the regulator. I’ll be asking people who work within the system whether they find their interactions with WorkSafe useful, reasonable, and timely?

I’m also not afraid of opening up the core underpinnings of the health and safety system, so I’ll be asking the public whether they believe the consequences for not complying with health and safety obligations are balanced and reasonable.

It is important that we get the law right, and that it works for all types of businesses, workers and sectors.

If you work in New Zealand, if you own a small business or run a big business, if you’ve had a workplace injury, illness, or a near-miss, if your job is to help keep people safe and healthy at work, then I want to hear from you.

I want to hear about your experience with the health and safety system, and what we can do better.

As health and safety experts in your field and organisations, I am sure you have valuable experience and insights to contribute to the consultation. I encourage all of you to make a submission. 

Information about the consultation, including how to make a submission, is available on MBIE’s website.

Submissions are open until 31 October, and I encourage you all to take this opportunity to say what you think.

Sadly, I will be unable to join the Safeguard awards tonight, but I wish the very best to the finalists and winners of the different categories.

Once again, thank you for having me here today.