New Zealand’s workplace toll a cause for national shame

20 May

By Dave Armstrong, Dominion Post

OPINION: Though our workplace safety record is three times as bad as Britain’s and twice as bad as Australia’s, it hardly rates a mention.

The old Farmers building in Napier, where a construction worker died last week.

Kiwis were justifiably outraged last week when they heard a story about a "gold elite" passenger on an Air New Zealand flight refusing to give up her prime seat to a wheelchair-bound passenger.

I was almost as outraged as I had been a few weeks previously when I heard about a certain lowly ranked list MP allegedly threatening to get his boss, the prime minister, to fire a waiter if a drink wasn’t immediately served.

So why, when a far more serious incident occurred – a building contractor tragically killed in a workplace accident in Napier – was there so little media coverage or public outrage?

Though our workplace accident toll is alarmingly high by world standards, we seem to have become desensitised to it. As with our appalling suicide rate and too-high road toll, when an industrial fatality occurs we express sympathy and concern, but do little about it.

A report released earlier this year found New Zealand had an "appalling, unacceptable and unsustainable" record in workplace health and safety. The number of serious injuries and fatalities that occur in our workplaces is alarmingly high for a so-called developed nation.

If our unemployment rate was three times as high as Britain’s, which would work out at about 23 per cent, there would be justifiable national outrage and marches through the streets.

Yet though our workplace safety record is three times as bad as Britain’s and twice as bad as Australia’s, it hardly rates a mention. We’re desperate to keep up with the Aussies in sport, and our politicians dream of competing with their wages, yet we seem to happily let the Aussies – with their many deep mines, tough climate and plethora of poisonous animals – trump us in the workplace safety stakes.

Perhaps the reason basil growers like me get more outraged about the rising price of Israeli couscous or cuts to arts funding is that over half our industrial accidents happen in just five industries – manufacturing, construction, agriculture, forestry and fishing.

These are mainly blue- and brown-collar industries dominated by young blokes and usually located well away from CBD cafes. So is it a case of out of sight, out of mind?

Though the odd industry leader occasionally laments our appalling record, it is Council of Trade Unions president Helen Kelly who has almost single-handedly kept this issue in the public eye – especially the appalling safety record in the forestry industry.

Ironically, one of the reasons for increasing workplace accidents is probably the contracting out of work and the increased use of casual, non-unionised labour.

Unionised workers might be a pain in the butt for employers working on tight margins, but they tend to blow the whistle on unsafe practices long before anyone else.

Casual and low-paid workers are too worried about losing their job to make a fuss. If you don’t believe me take a trip to a clothes factory in Bangladesh. Is this one area where increased worker militancy will be welcomed by the public?

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So who should we blame for our alarming workplace safety record?

Perhaps one problem is that different groups are too eager to blame each other. The recently released report pointed to a number of factors, including lack of clear regulation, bad leadership and poor worker engagement.

The review of the Pike River tragedy showed that private companies sometimes fail to carry out their safety responsibilities, and our current bureaucracy-averse government lets them get away with it.

But it is also true that in some industries, especially those with a large number of gung-ho young males involved, workers sometimes fail to take the safety precautions that their employers have implemented.

Labour Minister Simon Bridges has a great opportunity to build a real consensus around workplace safety. We all want it to improve.

If he can get everyone to leave doctrine at the door – rather than their helmets and hi-vis vests – then maybe through co-operation, education and regulation we might emerge from Third World workplace safety to First.

Then, as our cricketers occasionally show, we will be able to compare ourselves favourably with Britain and Australia, instead of being lumped with minnows like Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.

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One Response to “New Zealand’s workplace toll a cause for national shame”

  1. sfmtusker May 25, 2013 at 12:58 am #

    I totally agree that one of the major reasons for rise in workplace accidents is due to increased use of casual labor. What steps are being taken to improve workplace safety in New Zealand? Training programs stressing on workers safety and awareness through seminars, workshops etc are best to lower accidents.

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