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Health and Safety in Employment Amendment Bill

5 December 2001

Health and Safety in Employment Amendment Bill
Sue Bradford - Green Party
First Reading speech
EMBARGOED UNTIL DELIVERY

Mr Speaker

As all too many families and workmates are aware, the accident and death rates among New Zealand workers are appalling. A recent study by the Council of Trade Unions shows that even at a conservative estimate, an average of 11 people die as a result of exposure to hazards at work each week in this country.

And when we look at international comparisons, we see that our work fatality rate is 25 - 50 per cent higher than that in countries like Australia and the United States, when looking across a range of high risk industries.

At the same time an average of 700 people are injured at work each week badly enough to be eligible to receive ACC compensation or other rehabilitation entitlements. In addition, hundreds of thousands more workers (217,000 in 1999 - 2000) are injured and see a doctor, but do not make an entitlement claim.

Altogether, that equals more than 4,000 work related injuries each week - and this doesn't even include new claims that are or were self managed by employers, or the many injuries and diseases caused by exposure to chemicals in the workplace which are not currently recognised by ACC.

This is simply not acceptable.

Each occasion when someone goes to work and doesn't ever come home again marks an indelible tragedy that ripples out to family, friends and fellow workers. Each time that someone is injured and has to take days, weeks, months or years off work is a life damaging experience for the individual, and a significant economic cost to their employer.

I know that many companies and organisations feel they've been trying hard over the last 10 years to improve their health and safety practices at work, especially in the light of ongoing and almost continuous mutations in the administration of ACC.

However, not enough has changed, and for this reason the Green Party will be giving its support to the Health and Safety in Employment Bill through to the Select Committee, pending the amendments and improvements which will undoubtedly arise from the close scrutiny it will receive in the committee process.

A lot of the controversy that has arisen around this Bill so far has centred on the inclusion of stress and fatigue in the legislation.

This is not a new concept. In fact, stress and fatigue were recognised by Occupational Safety and Health in 1998 under the previous Government, with the publication of their report 'The impact of stress and fatigue in the workplace.' OSH acknowledged that stress and fatigue contribute to work accidents, and that employers needed to implement a system to detect stress and fatigue in the workplace, and take action.

Overseas research clearly shows a strong correlation between work stress, fatigue and accidents. In Aotearoa New Zealand, we do already understand that tiredness and exhaustion are serious risk factors.

For example, commercial drivers are legally required to rest for a continuous nine hour period within every 24 hours, and long distance drivers have supposedly strict limitations on how many hours they can drive.

The Land Transport Safety Authority states that between 1996 and 1998 driver fatigue was a contributing factor in 114 fatal crashes and 1,315 injury crashes. This is approximately eight per cent of fatal crashes and five per cent of injury crashes annually. More research is being done all the time demonstrating the unequivocal relationship between lack of sleep and driver error in both work and non-work contexts, and I don't think of any of us here in Parliament are foolish enough to not make the connection.

The courts have also recognised stress and fatigue as factors in work accidents and workers have won civil actions against employers for ill health arising from stress.

While I believe the legislation before this house only serves to clarify the current situation, I look forward to hearing the breadth of employers' views on this issue.

I note that in submissions to the Health and Safety in Employment discussion document, the majority of employers supported the need for additional measures to reduce occupation fatigue and stress. While work junkies in this House may find 15 to 17 hour working days and high levels of stress a welcome and even necessary adrenaline boost, I believe that this is not the way it should be, either for the health of Members, or for the good of the nation in terms of the work we purport to do here.

This becomes particularly relevant as we move into several days under urgency. I'm sure we're not at our best at 11 o'clock at night, and never have been.

One of the underlying values of the Green Party is about creating a society that respects human as well as physical resources, and uses them sustainably. Human beings aren't machines - we need rest and even sleep for our physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing - and when we don't get enough, accidents of all sorts can and will happen, as I'm sure most of us can testify.

I am pleased too, that this legislation builds on the good faith bargaining practices laid out in last year's Employment Relations Act. It is critical that both employers and employees work together to address workplace health and safety.

Neither employers nor employees alone can make a workplace safer. Good employers already recognise this, and have health and safety committees and systems for identifying hazards.

I'm also pleased that this legislation extends coverage to volunteers, and includes those in training or gaining work experience. People like volunteers, interns and trainees actually play a pivotal role in a huge number of workplaces, and yet they've remained unrecognised in work related legislation for far too long.

All too often employers do not adequately consider the needs of volunteers before accepting their services. While voluntary staff do not receive any formal pay, it is imperative that they are not harmed by their experience of work.

The Land Transport Safety Authority currently places a value of $2.4 million on a human life when it undertakes cost benefit analyses on road safety. By comparison, a maximum penalty of $500,000 for offenders who know they are likely to cause serious harm seems moderate in comparison.

Finally, I am aware that there has been some concern from employers and the opposition parties about the possible increased cost to business of this legislation. This is a worry the Green Party does share, as we are well aware of the already high compliance costs which beset enterprises of all shapes and sizes.

However, I also believe that good employers will already be meeting the requirements set out by this new legislation, and so won't face significant extra expenditure.

And secondly, there are in fact financial savings to be made by employers when they invest in sound health and safety practices, as many attest when queried about this issue. When employers lower accident rates, they actually gain from lower ACC premiums, and fewer hours and days lost to injury and sickness.

I've met several representatives of major employers recently who have been proud to enumerate the many improvements they've made in recent years to health and safety in their worksites, and the incredibly beneficial outcomes they've seen from this, not just in worker health and morale, but also in the bottom line.

I know there are particular issues for small business, but I hope the Select Committee process will bring these out, and we are keen to help look for particular solutions in this area.

I hope we won't see a major confrontation over this Bill of the type we saw with the ACC and ERB legislation last year. There is no need for it. After all, it is in everyone's interests, no matter what side of the employee / employer or right / left fence we sit on, that we drastically cut the numbers of those people injured at work, or those that never come home at all.

ends

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