How effective are our health and safety efforts?

By Craig Carlyle, director at Maintenance Transformations

Health and safety statistics seemed to have slipped off the radar since the intense media scrutiny post the Pike River Mine disaster and the subsequent introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act circa 2016.

Ever wondered why?

They have hardly improved since 2001.

In 2001 the stats were published by ACC. Annual deaths were 70 plus, with 200,00 injury claims. Nineteen years later (2020), according to Stats NZ we had 66 fatalities and 217,500 injury claims. We can play with numbers, population size and industry factors but, it is not a significant improvement after 20 years of intense and expensive input.

Since 1992 we have created a huge health and safety industry, a new inspectorate (WorkSafe), a new industry career path for health and safety managers, and a tsunami of rules and pieces of paper. While this level of compliance and fluro may make us feel better, the hard facts are that workers are still dying and hurting at pretty much the same rate as last century.

The most dangerous area to work in is Gisborne and the Hawke’s Bay and the most dangerous industries are still agriculture, forestry, and fishing. Male workers over the age of 75 have the highest incidence rate of claims, followed by 15–24-year-olds.

On the bright side, the statistics are not climbing and could be claimed to be generally improving, (although Covid-19 is noted as a downward skew). The 2020 injury incidence rate is the lowest since 2002. At ground level, there are positive stories, safety innovations and a higher health and safety profile. But to congratulate ourselves would be a folly. Without fundamental change, we will be facing the same scale of statistics in 2032.

Whatever we are doing now to manage health and safety, it is not improving the safety statistics. Doing more of the same will generate the same results. The upside is we know the status quo doesn’t work, so we can focus on what might work. Government has done a good job of setting the playing field, but industry has failed to successfully achieve the results.

It is doubtful the drive from MBIE to create more rules will have any beneficial effect on the statistics and WorkSafe are simply the policemen, cleaning up our mess. Between the silos of policy and policing a gap exists in enabling businesses to get it right. We see this daily in the management of machine safety risks, companies not being cognisant of their responsibilities and competent in managing them.

Current health and safety systems and processes are certainly worthwhile, but successful companies have abandoned the downwardly driven cover-your-butt approach for an upwardly driven inclusive approach. This perhaps is a clue to a safer future.

Craig Carlyle is director at Maintenance Transformations. His expertise lies in the practical application of maintenance and health and safety management systems in the workplace. He is also a life member of the Maintenance Engineering Society of NZ.

The information and opinions within this column are not necessarily the views or opinions of Xpress Engineer NZ, NZ Engineering News or the parent company, Hayley Media.