Health and Safety legislation is a Wimps Act

When the fishing trawler Oyang 70 sank in a storm off the coast from Dunedin in 2010, a Sunday Star Times exclusive report found the culture of safety on board a fishing trawler to be roughly like the “wild west”. Three months later on a Friday afternoon at work, I heard there had been an explosion in the Pike River coal mine on the West Coast, near Greymouth that had caused a cave in trapping numerous miners. Five days later a second explosion killed everyone trapped in the mine – 29 men all up.

Prime Minister John Key made a promise to grieving families that the Government would review the regulatory frame work that enabled such a culture to exist. That promise was kept. But it was just a first step. Reviewing the framework would provide answers as to how and why this problem exists, but not a solution to the problem at large. This legislation was supposed to be that solution. The Government thinks it still is the solution, but some very credible doubts as to its sincerity in writing the legislation are emerging. The major ones are:

  • How on earth did worm farms become hazardous – did they think their inhabitants were somehow snakes?
  • How did forestry, construction and farming get the safety ratings that they did?
  • Secret courts?! Doing what?
  • And if the Government really wanted it to be quality legislation why has it not been sent to the select committee for inspection?

A litany of incidents, some involving fishing trawlers with rogue skippers, some involving vulnerable migrant workers not knowing what their legal employ rights are being exploited by their employers – to name just a few – point to some serious issues. Thus “Wild West” seems like an apt description for New Zealand occupational health and safety. New Zealand is better than that. New Zealand MUST be better than that if we are serious about avoiding another work place accident with large scale loss of life, and also to reduce the current rate of lesser, but no less problematic accidents causing injury. New Zealand has high rates of injury on farms from – among other things – quad bike accidents. Another high risk industry, forestry, has been under the spot light in recent years with questions about practices using heavy machinery. And more recently with the post-earthquake rebuild in Christchurch and the influx of migrant workers from countries that pay little regard to worker safety, there are very compelling reasons to overhaul New Zealand occupational health and safety laws.

Thus it is very disturbing to hear Labour Member of Parliament Jacinda Ardern talking about clauses in the legislation that apparently refer to secret courts. New Zealand is negotiating with 11 other nations including the U.S. and China to enact a so called free trade agreement where commentators are concerned about investor-state-dispute-settlement clauses involving secret courts. If one considers that the health and safety legislation also has allegedly has secret courts, is it too much of a jump to think that they might be linked?

By passing wimpish legislation that kowtows to vested interests, the Wild West reputation is being upheld, and Mr Keys promise to the families of the Pike River dead is being broken. By passing this legislation New Zealand is saying to the world, “your impression of us being the Wild West of occupational health and safety is accurate”. Maybe we are not so good after all.

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