Transforming Health and Safety: a new era of reform - and fewer road cones?

17 June 2024

Over the past couple of weeks, there have been some key announcements in the health and safety space:

    1. WorkSafe launched a refreshed strategy which outlines its focus going forward; and
    2. the Minister for Workplace Relations and Safety, the Honourable Brook van Velden, announced that consultation on work health and safety in New Zealand has now begun, with a roadshow over the next few months.

This article summarises some of the key information regarding each of these significant announcements.

WorkSafe’s new strategy

WorkSafe recently launched a refreshed strategy to, in the words of WorkSafe Board’s Chair Jennifer Kerr: “deliver what New Zealanders expect of their work health and safety regulator”. In short, WorkSafe’s new strategy aims to ensure that WorkSafe’s focus is on the sectors where there is the most risk of serious harm to workers. 

WorkSafe’s new strategy follows an independent review carried out in May 2022. The independent review found that WorkSafe needed a clearer description of what it does (its activities), what resources are applied to those activities, and the contribution those activities make to its outcomes. In addition to the independent review, WorkSafe’s size as a regulator has come under pressure over the past few months, with a need to focus on a more sustainable funding model. This has resulted in a reduction in the number of people working for WorkSafe. 

WorkSafe’s strategy states that moving forward, the best way for WorkSafe to manage health and safety risks is to focus WorkSafe’s efforts and resources on three types of harm: acute (serious injury, illness or death arising from a single event); chronic (serious injury, illness or death caused over time); and catastrophic (serious injury, illness or death affecting multiple people). Consequently, WorkSafe will no longer focus on less serious risks and types of harm; however, Steve Haszard (WorkSafe’s interim CEO) has noted that other regulators and agencies (such as ACC) will continue to focus on these other risks.

This announcement marks a shift from recent times when WorkSafe targeted all types of harm in the workplace, including a growing focus on “psychosocial risks” within the workplace (such as stress, fatigue, and bullying). The focus on “psychosocial risks” is a growing trend overseas, with Australia recently introducing a “Stop Bullying Order” in the Fair Work Commission and a “right to disconnect”. However, the shift in WorkSafe’s focus to acute, chronic and catastrophic harm clearly moves away from any similar approach being taken in the New Zealand health and safety space, at least for now.  

WorkSafe’s refreshed strategy is the first of three documents that will define how WorkSafe will undertake its role as New Zealand’s primary work health and safety regulator. The second component will be a “Functional Model” that defines the key functions WorkSafe must do well to deliver its strategy.  The third will be an “Operating Plan” that sets out organisational priorities, initiatives and activities, including setting out how resources will be allocated, and the outcomes that WorkSafe intends to achieve. 

WorkSafe has signalled that the Operating Plan, set to be announced in late June and to come into effect from 1 July, will focus its efforts and resources in the sectors where there is the greatest risk of worker harm: construction, manufacturing, agriculture and forestry. The Operating Plan will also have specific priorities within these sectors, focusing on the three types of harm referred to above (acute, chronic and catastrophic).

Steve Haszard has indicated that WorkSafe will constantly review its focus sectors to ensure that it is always focusing on the most high-risk sectors, but has emphasised that WorkSafe will be cautious of getting back to a place where it is “spreading itself too thin.”

Consultation on health and safety

Last week, the Minister announced the commencement of substantial consultation regarding health and safety, the first step towards potential reform of health and safety law and regulations. The Minister noted that the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 is almost 10 years old and, therefore, it was appropriate to “take a step back and look at what’s working and what needs to change”. In particular, the Minister commented that “[O]ur health and safety culture can be summed up by the sea of orange road cones that have taken over the country” and queried whether this was the right approach going forward.   

The Government is interested in hearing from all stakeholders including businesses and workers, regarding the current health and safety system, including the law and regulations, the supporting information (such as approved codes of practice), the regulators, and responsibilities of parties in the system.

Some specific issues the Government is interested in are:

    • how decisions are made about health and safety, the reasons behind these decisions, and their cost;
    • whether the law strikes the right balance between flexibility and certainty – whether it’s too detailed in some cases, or not detailed or clear enough in others;
    • how businesses and organisations engage with workers, how workers participate in health and safety, and the impact this has on health and safety;
    • experiences with health and safety regulators, and the people and organisations that act on behalf of the regulators or have other roles within the system; and
    • whether the work health and safety regulatory system is meeting its objective.

If you are interested in making a submission on New Zealand’s current work health and safety regulatory system, click here. Please let us know if you would like any assistance with making a submission.

The consultation period ends on 31 October 2024. 

The coalition agreement between the National Party and ACT committed to reforming health and safety law and regulations. The announcement of this consultation process exploring all aspects of health and safety laws is the first step towards this potential reform. We will provide further updates regarding this potential reform as they arise.    

If you have any questions about the matters raised in this article, please get in touch with the contacts listed or your usual Bell Gully adviser.

Disclaimer: This publication is necessarily brief and general in nature. You should seek professional advice before taking any action in relation to the matters dealt with in this publication.