Nicole Rosie: Workplace death toll must be cut

Health and safety should be a strategic focus for all directors.

Last Saturday Brian Gaynor suggested red tape was tying businesses in knots, forcing directors to focus too much on short-term compliance.

Brian says it is vital all company directors focus on the big stuff. I agree. It’s the big stuff that really matters.

That is why New Zealand boards and directors should focus on health and safety as a strategic priority.


Effective health and safety is all about creating sustainable businesses, not compliance. It is at the heart of any successful business. Getting all the team home healthy and safe at the end of each day must be a strategic priority. It also makes good business sense and is an essential component of employee engagement, productivity and business sustainability.

Unfortunately, New Zealand’s health and safety performance remains one of the worst in the OECD. While there are some positive signals that we’re making progress towards the Government’s target of reducing work-related deaths and serious injuries by at least 25 per cent by the year 2020, 28 New Zealanders have lost their lives at work this year. This is devastating and I offer my heartfelt sympathies to their families, colleagues and communities.

Most New Zealand businesses are small to medium sized (fewer than 20 people). It’s hard to imagine anything more catastrophic for a business than the death of a worker or its owner while at work.

What’s so sad is that many of the recent deaths have been caused by the same types of issues that have been killing Kiwi workers for years: vehicle accidents (including many involving workers in service industries), forklifts, falls, unguarded machinery. Directors need to focus on critical risks, those things in their businesses that will kill and maim, and ensure their organisation is effectively managing those risks and their controls.

More than this, it is about creating environments where employee health and wellbeing is also considered. This is relevant to all businesses including those in the service sector.

This was highlighted by a recent Harvard article that looked at a study published in The Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The study proposed a model to help the investment community better understand the value, in a financial sense, of health and safety for a workforce. One study cited tracked a theoretical $ 10,000 investment in health, safety and wellbeing over 13-15 years and found companies with “strong health, safety, and environmental programmes” outperformed the S&P 500.

What is critical is that directors focus on the right stuff. The Health and Safety at Work Act (2015) came into effect on April 4, 2016. Far from being a box-ticking compliance exercise, the act takes a risk-based approach. So, as Brian notes, for the many Kiwi businesses in the service industry, it’s about identifying and managing the critical risks they face – for example, vehicle accidents, international travel, physical security and health issues like work-related stress.

The act does not promote paperwork for the sake of it, and it certainly doesn’t suggest the risks are the same across different industries. But it does require directors to be accountable for health and safety. And, if they are found to have (without reasonable excuse) engaged in conduct that exposes any individual to a risk of death, serious injury or illness, or to have been reckless about the risk, they will be held responsible.

Effective health and safety is not about compliance. It is about creating successful and sustainable businesses that care for their people – something all boards should aspire to.

Nicole Rosie is chief executive of WorkSafe. She has held senior roles at Fonterra, KiwiRail, Toll NZ and Fletcher Challenge Forests. She has master’s degrees in public health and law.

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