Don’t expect WorkSafe to back off fines and prosecutions for serious failure by employers to ensure practices and equipment are in place to keep workers safe. But there’s a change of culture and direction at the nation’s primary workplace health and safety regulator – and it’s being driven from the top.
WorkSafe Chief Executive Phil Parkes says when someone is injured or killed in a workplace the factors involved can go far beyond failure by the immediate employer, or the victim’s mistake or carelessness.
He’s interested in getting alongside other partners across industries to take a broader, systems-wide approach to identifying and trying to remedy root causes of why 62 people didn’t come home from work in the 12 months to September 30 last year, and why more than 30,000 people suffered injuries that led to more than a week off work.
A prime example of the changed approach is WorkSafe’s funding of work by Safer Farms on the Farm without Harm strategy. The draft document proposes more than 40 initiatives and actions over the next six years that have been collectively agreed on as priorities by agriculture sector leaders and government agency representatives (see page 5).
“My first message whenever I talk to people about this stuff is that WorkSafe will always have an enforcement role,” Phil says.
“Victims and their families expect us to hold people to account. So, it’s less about moving away from having an enforcement role and doing investigations and prosecutions and more about trying to get to the cause of the harm rather than deal with the consequences.
“As well as the hard enforcement for accountability we want to put in equal effort preventing the harm by changing the way work is done.”
Phil talks about “upstream duties”. As he said in a recent interview with Newsroom, “Work is not just delivered by frontline workers and supervisors. It’s delivered by people who set up organisations, leaders who set the culture, directors who make the financial decisions, the architects who design the buildings, the owners of forests who decide where to plant the trees. There is a huge [number] of players in the work economy that have health and safety responsibilities, and influence and control, that don’t always sit in the business that carries out the frontline activity.”
How might that apply in agriculture?
“Take the example of a farm owner who takes on share milkers and then the sharemilker uses contractors. The contractor might use a subcontractor or labour hire company. We’ll be looking at all those parties in the supply chain, saying ‘actually, you all have responsibilities to set up the work to be done in a safe way’.
“So we’re taking a more of a system view, which is what Lindy Nelson [of Safer Farms] talks about. What are the influences that either set work up to be done well, or not set up well in terms of putting commercial pressures on, or terms and conditions in contracts that create unsafe work which then results in a vulnerable worker being harmed.”
The new approach is really only now getting underway, Phil says.
“Part of why I’m talking to [Federated Farmers] and to other organisations about this is to tell everybody that we’re changing our focus, because that gives people the opportunity to think about what it means for their business and their supply chain before we come and talk to them.”
It requires culture changes within WorkSafe too, he says.
“If we’re going to have different expectations for all of New Zealand about doing work differently, then we need to change as a regulator. And that’s about internal transformation.
“So we’re retraining our people, we’re bringing on board people with particular skills, such as [forestry veteran] Warwick Foran [who advised on pressures particular to that industry].”
Phil agrees with Feds Vice-President Karen Williams that stress and fatigue are a big driver of mistakes and accidents on farms, and in other workplaces.
“The question WorkSafe is increasingly asking is, why are people tired? Why do they feel the need to work 70 hours a week, or 23 hours straight? What are the contexts and structures of work that require them to work such long hours?
“Is it because they’ve got KPIs to meet? Is it because of seasonal variation? How much do labour shortages have to do with it?”.
Phil agrees with Karen that if somebody gets their arm stuck in a piece of machinery it’s often because they’re tired, or they’re thinking about something else. WorkSafe and the industry need to delve into what’s going on behind the scenes.
“If we can get to those root causes and change that, then farmers and workers can focus on their job and be well rested, which means they won’t put their arm into a machine, which means our statistics go down.
“We’re aligned with Safer Farms about the need to understand what’s behind some of the accidents that happen on farm.”
When the root causes are identified, will it mean enforcement and fines?
“That’s one option that will always be on the table for us but it’s not the only option,” Phil replies. “Another option could be to work in partnership with that business to say ‘how can we help you transform the way that you do things?”
Some operations might not even be aware that they’re causing problems further down the supply chain or that a contractor a farm uses has a record of multiple accidents over multiple sites. Being made aware gives them the choice of using a different contractor or rearranging the terms of the contracts to build in better safety outcomes.
“Sometimes it might just be providing information, sometimes it’s having a chat, sometimes it’s going to enforcement. It depends on the reaction we get on the issues involved,” Phil says.