The Noggin Blog

After Reforms, Key Work Health and Safety Challenges Persist in Australia & New Zealand

Posted by The Brain on Feb 6, 2019 6:57:48 AM


In the last decade, Australia and New Zealand launched broad-based reforms to retool their occupational health and safety systems. Australia implemented a rigorous harmonisation regime: its commonwealth Model Work Health and Safety Act now forms the basis of the majority of state WHS laws. New Zealand, then, used Australia’s Model Act as the basis for its regulations.


What have been the cumulative effects of all of this change? Well, PCBUs in both countries have made enormous strides towards improving health and safety outcomes. But as surveys capture, persistent challenges remain. Which ones top the list?

The case of New Zealand is stark. The country spent much of the last 100 years at the very bottom rungs of advanced economy rankings for occupational health and safety, especially in high-risk sectors. For instance, between 2005 and 2008, New Zealand ranked dead last (among nine peer countries) in overall occupational safety performance, averaging a rate of 4.2 occupational fatalities per 100,000-person years. In contrast, peer countries like Finland, Sweden, and the U.K. averaged fewer than two.

Of course, the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA2015), passed five and a half years after the tragedy at the Pike River Mine, was designed to change all of that, by upending the country’s ineffective occupational health and safety laws.

Though relatively new, the HSWA2015 has had an immediate effect on PCBUs operating in the country. A State of the Nation survey taken in 2017, a full year after the HSWA2015 was implemented, reported a 16 percent jump in the degree to which health and safety was taken seriously. Case in point: 81 percent of companies reported making changes to their work-related health and safety systems or practices after contact with the regulator, WorkSafe New Zealand. Now, a full 79 percent of workplaces have health and safety systems to identify, assess, and manage critical risks.

Even though PCBUs have changed their behaviour, they still face a number of WHS challenges. In the most recent State of the Nation survey (April 2018), PCBUs acknowledged persistent difficulty making cultural changes in their organizations (21.3 percent), dealing with contractors and other PCBUs (18.4 percent), as well as dealing with health risk exposures.

The challenges, like securing contractor populations, aren’t distinct to New Zealand, either. In many respects, they’re regional, if not global. The labor hire market in Australia is surging. The country has recently experienced an over 30 percent increase in independent contractors, who now number just over 11 percent of the total Australian workforce. The only issue for PCBUs, though, is that their third-party labour hires are also owed a duty of care. PCBUs must, therefore, develop distinct contractor relationship management protocols to ensure they meet those obligations.

Unfortunately, that’s not so easy, especially for small and medium-sized businesses. Research shows that SMEs are more likely (than their larger counterparts) to be stymied in their attempts to build robust safety cultures. Here, compliance is the primary challenge: only half of small businesses feel confident in meeting their WHS obligations, according to the Employsure Workplace Safety Index. Further, SMEs are more likely to find the new raft of rules and regulations complex and regulatory regime shifts bewildering.

There are other WHS challenges, as technology and the nature of work change.  For one, the Workplace Safety Futures report cites a failure to fully integrate automated workplace systems into WHS risk assessments. Moreover, we find that changes in working patterns, i.e. work from home or newer lone work arrangements, also tend to expand the WHS risk plane for companies.

What’s the net? For PCBUs of any size, the key to staying on the right side of compliance is fully understanding the statutes, knowing which measures are in place and which are coming down the pike. For instance, in June of this year, New Zealand will begin applying heightened regulations for the use, handling, and storage of hazardous waste. Keen to learn what else is in the statutes? Download our update to the Health and Safety at Work Act. 

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Dunedin School of Medicine: International comparison of International Labour Organisation published occupational fatal injury rates: How does New Zealand compare internationally?
Safeguard Magazine: State of the Nation – the survey
Australian Bureau of Statistics: Characteristics of Employment, Australia, August 2017
Employsure: Employsure Workplace Safety Index


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Topics: Work Health Safety

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