Death Rides A Quad Bike

The human costs of our “light-handed” approach to workplace health and safety

by Gordon Campbell

It is not only in pay rates that this country lags behind Australia. On average, New Zealand workers are also at more risk of harm in the work place than their equivalents across the Tasman. Both trends can be traced to legislation passed here in the early 1990s. Not for nothing did New Zealand politicians at the time describe our main piece of health and safety law (the Health Safety and Employment Act 1992) as being a “brother” piece of legislation to the Employment Contracts Act.

The ECA assisted employers to bypass union representation and cut the short-term cost of labour. In similar fashion, the HSE Act has sought to liberate employers from the former, more intrusive system of centralised workplace inspection and regulation, and promote in its place a ‘safety culture’ based largely on voluntary compliance. As union membership lapsed, New Zealand work sites began to atomise into a welter of contractors and sub-contractors, each with their own alleged responsibilities for a health and safety regime that has existed more on paper than in practice. In the current climate of price competition between independent contractors, health and safety elements tend to be among the first budgeted items to get trimmed in order to win bids for the work available – while at the other end of the spectrum, the DoL’s inspection and enforcement regime has been gradually drained of resources and technical expertise, in line with the preference for “light handed” regulation and largely voluntary compliance.

Some of the fruits of that approach are now being examined by the Royal Commission into the Pike River tragedy. The Commission findings are expected to range more widely than the immediate circumstances of the mining disaster – and will almost certainly indict the ‘light-handed’ regulatory culture that has prevailed within Department of Labour for the past two decades. Not only has DoL seen its mining inspectorate lapse, but its in-house technical expertise relevant on a variety of health and safety fronts has been allowed to deteriorate and/or be outsourced.

The same thinking that produced the ECA also shaped the HSE Act – and the advocates of both these pieces of early 1990s legislation have tended to demonise centralised oversight and regulation (and significant on-site union representation) as being obstacles to the ability of business to increase productivity, reduce labour costs and maximise short term profit. To those ends, New Zealand has paid a price in blood.

The statistical evidence is condensed within this graph from page 14 of Safe Work Australia’s Comparative Performance Monitoring Report, which shows the level and the trendline of New Zealand’s workplace fatalities to be strikingly out of kilter with those in other comparable countries.

Source: Safe Work Australia’s Comparative Performance Monitoring Report – 13th edition – Page 5

The most recent DoL figures show that 41 people were killed on the job during 2011 and 6,087 workers suffered serious harm.

While work fatalities decreased last year – largely because of the blip in the figures caused in 2010 by the Pike River disaster – the rate of serious injury incurred on the job has remained virtually static. The figures cited here do not include deaths in the maritime or aviation sectors, or fatalities due to work-related road crashes. The DoL figures also do not include the toll from occupational disease, which is estimated to lead to 700-1,000 fatalities and 17,000- 20,000 new and serious cases a year with asthma, skin diseases and asbestos-related cancer being the major contributors.

The role of work-related asbestos exposure in lung cancer deaths – which are commonly attributed to smoking – may well be significantly under- reported. According to the DoL health and safety advisor Dr. Geraint Emrys, (Safeguard magazine, May/June 2011) in comments about the 2010 National Asbestos Medical Panel report : “The taking of lung cancer history is still dominated by the smoking factor, and occupational factors are down-played.” In Emrys’ estimation, the steep rise in recorded asbestos-related cancers may not peak for another 20 to 30 years. In the wake of the Christchurch earthquake, both the initial destruction to buildings and their subsequent demolition has posed a fresh risk of asbestos exposure from wind-borne particles.

There are other ways of measuring the high incidence of accidents and injury in the New Zealand work place. During 2010, 187,300 New Zealanders lodged ACC claims for work-related injuries, comprising 209,700 claims in all. Just over 10% of these claims fell into the more serious “entitlement claim” category, where compensation and support goes beyond merely the re-imbursement of medical fees. Agricultural and fishery workers were the occupational group with the highest injury incidence rate. On the figures, a startling rate of almost one in four farming and fishery workers were injured on the job in 2010, as reflected in the incidence rate of 241 work-related injury claims per 1,000 full-time equivalent employees. Despite fewer ACC work related claims being lodged annually since 2006, the cost of such claims has continued on a steady rise. This is due either (or both) to a rise in medical costs, or to an increase in the severity of the accidents – along with the distinct possibility that the number of ACC claims lodged may have dropped not because of safety improvements, but in response to ACC raising the hurdle of acceptance.

Besides the suffering behind these dry figures, there is also an economic cost involved. In a June 2011 publication, DoL estimated the cost of workplace death and injury to be $16 billion (!) annually when direct health and ACC claim costs are added to the costs of rehabilitation and lost productivity and to the indirect costs and suffering related to premature death.

So, what preventive steps are being taken to deal with this elephant in the room? Currently, construction, forestry, agriculture and transport are being singled out for DoL’s special attention, as priority sectors where people are more likely to be harmed or killed at work. Last year, farming was the riskiest occupation – on average, one farmer or farmhand died every 24 days in New Zealand during 2011. Out of 41 workplace deaths last year, 15 were farmers or farmhands – with quad bike and tractor accidents being the leading cause of death on farms. Quad bikes are, in fact, second only to car accidents as the leading cause of accidental death in rural communities.

The annual financial cost in ACC claims for quad bikes alone ( I’ve subtracted the claims related to all terrain motor vehicles from the figures supplied by ACC for this article) has risen from $4.51 million in 2004/2005 to $8.56 million in 08/09 with a slight dip to $7.51 million in 09/10. While my focus in this article is entirely upon the injuries and costs from work-related quad bike use, the same statistics show a rising trend in the cost of claims from their recreational use as well, and since 07/08 these cost of these leisure-related claims have in fact exceeded the cost of the work-related claims, in some years quite substantially. (In 07/08 for instance, recreational use of quad bikes cost the taxpayer $4.66 million in ACC claims while work use claims amounted to $3.7 million.) Clearly, the risk factors, injury toll and economic cost of quad bikes in a recreational context merits a separate story in itself.

For now, the work-related dangers of these vehicles have become the target of a special DoL educational and enforcement safety programme – which, in its essentials, promotes the message that

(a) quad bike riders should be trained in their use to a level sufficient to do the job safely
(b) children should be prevented from riding adult quad bikes,
(c) quad bike riders should always wear a helmet and
(d) the right vehicle should be chosen for the job, in line with manufacturer recommendations.

Despite the recurringly high rates of deaths and serious injury from quad bike use, DoL’s response remains weighted almost entirely towards education and persuasion, rather than to seeking behavioural change by means of mandatory compliance, penalties and prosecution. That tone has been set from the top. Last year, Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson (pictured left) stressed (Safeguard, May/June 2011, p 46) that the actions to enforce quad bike safety would be taken under the 1992 HSE Act, and not under any of the DoL’s new quad bike safety guidelines. Farmers, she indicated, could rest easy. “I’m aware there is some agitation within the [farming] sector about the notion of enforcement…there’s been talk of inspectors jumping over farm fences with their ’ticket books’ in their hands, ready to levy fines on farmers…The department [DoL] does not take this approach to enforcement.”

Indeed it doesn’t. In January, in the context of an inquest into a quad bike death accident that killed 21 year old beekeeper Jody Santos, Wellington coroner Ian Smith called on the authorities to investigate making helmets and roll bars compulsory on quad bikes, but was met with this hostile response instead :

Mr Smith’s decision has been sent to Transport Minister Stephen Joyce and Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson. A spokesman for Ms Wilkinson said Mr Smith was an “interventionist” and was asking for something that had already been done.

In fact, it still hasn’t. An interview for this article with Ona De Rooy, DoL’s Central Division manager, confirmed that there are no compulsory rules (ie, with automatic penalties when breaches occur) that
(a) require the wearing of a helmet when riding a quad bike off road, or that (b) make it mandatory to undergo training before using a quad bike, or that (c) stipulate age limits on who can ride or be a passenger on a quad bike, or that
(d) make it mandatory for quad bikes to have rollover protection bars fitted, or that
(e) ensure the quad bike has been adequately maintained.

On that last point, since quad bikes that are being used off-road do not need to have an annual warrant of fitness, the upkeep of the machines to a safe standard of operation can readily be allowed to lapse :

More than half the 60 farms in Nelson and Marlborough visited by health and safety inspectors this spring have been issued with notices requiring them to improve the way they are using quad bikes. Most of the improvement notices and warnings have involved riders not wearing helmets or using poorly maintained bikes.

Note the wording there : “improvement notices” and “warnings.” Although life and limb are on the line, the language remains one of persuasion, education and (almost exclusively) voluntary compliance. After the level where infringement notices are reached, subsequent prosecutions are still relatively rare. Under the HSE Act, the key wording is that employers are required to “take all practicable steps” to ensure safety. The trouble is, prosecutions are generally mounted only retrospectively in the wake of death or serious injury. For this article, DoL confirmed that only eight prosecutions have ever been mounted for quad bike misuse.

In the Jody Santos case, the employer was ultimately fined $78,000 and ordered to pay reparations of $60,000 for culpability arising from the fact that Santos was neither wearing a helmet, nor had been trained adequately in quad bike use. Interestingly, the sentencing judge C.N. Tuohy ruled that while farmers were free to risk killing themselves, they would be held liable for exposing their employees to the same risk. This, from Tuohy’s judgement :

Again, it is no excuse that a large percentage of farmers do not have a helmet on their property, which I accept to be true. That is their choice…[But] if they allow their employees to undertake those risks – that is, driving the ATV without proper training or without a helmet then farmers also could expect their culpability to be assessed at a high level if there is an accident…in this particular case, the explanation that “everyone is doing it’ is neither an acceptable excuse nor a mitigating factor….

What this confirms is that farmers are virtually free to do what they like (“That is their choice”) on the farm, while the courts try their best to protect the farmhands who work for them. A “do as I say, not as I do” unsafety culture is being perpetuated – apparently, out of deference to the rugged individualism and lobbying power of the farming community. One can reasonably ask what sort of safety regime shies away so resolutely from mandatory rules of compliance, and helps to preserve the right of farmers to kill or seriously injure themselves – and their children – at major emotional cost to the families left behind to grieve, and at major financial cost to the taxpayers left to foot the ACC and healthcare bills. Farmers may be renowned for having a “she’ll be right” ethos and a resistance to townies telling them what to do. Yet given the severity of the injuries and the prevalence of problems with these vehicles – Otago University research indicates that more than six out of ten farmers can expect, at one time or other, to lose control of their quad bikes.

– it is hardly surprising to find that some people have now had enough. The calls to frame the safety rules about quad bike use in terms of mandatory compliance – the compulsory wearing of helmets, the compulsory taking of training courses, age limits on bike riders and the mandatory fitting of rollover bars – are being issued by the likes of Wellington coroner Smith, who has plainly had his fill of presiding over inquests into the casualties of quad bike accidents.

The case for mandatory safety provisions is underlined by the scant resources that DoL can bring to bear to promote the four key messages central to its quad bike safety campaign. There are an estimated 80-100,000 quad bikes currently being used in New Zealand for a combination of work-related and recreational purposes, on and off the road. Some 5925 new bikes were sold in 2010, and 6570 more last year, according to figures supplied to me by the Motor Industry Association. Using a range of mid 2005 to 2007 data from the Ministry of the Environment and elsewhere, one can estimate that this country has some 13,905 sheep farms, 13,254 beef farms, 1,614 mixed farms, 1,617 deer farms and 12,786 dairy farms in New Zealand.

As De Rooy of the DoL confirmed, the department has only 150 safety inspectors in all, and all of them are being deployed to do farm inspections as part of the quad bike campaign. If they find evidence of unsafe behaviours, there is a tiered set of enforcement responses available, in the event of non-compliance. As mentioned, these range from written warnings to improvement notices to infringement notices to prohibition notices to prosecutions.

The DoL has just completed its first monitoring report on its quad bike campaign, and De Rooy is reasonably upbeat about the results. Helmet sales, she says, have gone up 200 % since the safety campaign began. Some 225 farms were visited and 76 improvement notices were handed out. ”The monitoring report has shown a “high visibility and knowledge of the key safety messages, from our internal data of what we saw on farms…We did 900 farm visits [last year] and served 300 notices of some sort, where there were improvements that needed to be made…It did show up we had some significant challenges.”

The DoL’s resources, she concedes, are thinly stretched. “As you point out, [it] is a few drops in the ocean, in terms of the size of our resource to do the visiting, and the level of farms and the use of vehicles.” In this situation, she indicates, the DoL does what it can and uses the media where it can to assist in public education. “If it turns out that harm was the result of a failure to follow the four safety steps then the farmer, as the employer, will be prosecuted.”

Right. However – as mentioned – despite the death and injury toll related to quad bike use, only eight prosecutions have ever been mounted related to quad bike mis-use. Moreover, as DoL informed me, only two infringement notices (which do not carry penalties) have been issued so far during the current safety campaign, So…if and when a written warning or an infringement notice or prohibition notice is issued, is a revisit then automatic to ensure that the warnings have been complied with? Apparently not. “It’s not automatic, “ De Rooy confirmed. But DoL does what it can. “It is involved in revisiting those properties where we issued notices in the previous phase of activity.”

OK, would DoL – for instance – support a mandatory annual warrant of fitness for these machines, given that they routinely get used on and off the road – and given that they get bought, and then get hacked around on the farm? Clearly, these vehicles have the capacity to inflict major harm, and keeping them in good condition would seem a reasonable request. So does DoL support there being a mandatory annual WoF?

Apparently not. “Our focus at the moment is in the four key messages,” De Rooy replies. “And while the inspectors are mindful of maintenance – and from the prohibition notices, are looking at maintenance issues…That’s not a priority for us, in this campaign.” Ditto, she indicates, when it comes to making helmets or rollover bars or competency training compulsory as a pre-emptive measure, or for having mandatory age limits for riders or passengers…Compulsion is not how DoL operates in this era of light-handed regulation, towards the farming sector in particular. “I think the discussions we are trying to have [with farmers] are less about regulation,” De Rooy says. “This is not about, you know, more rules and more detailed rules. This is about having discussion and engaging and educating around the levels of risk, and about really painting a clearer picture of the harm that can occur…”

Right. Well….since using the right vehicle for the job is one of the four key safety messages in its quad bike campaign, has DoL developed any set of guidelines as to what kind of jobs quad bikes can be safely used for, and which jobs they can’t? Using them, say, for carrying or towing heavy, sloshing containers of spray liquid could be problematic, given that such gear (or passengers) could easily upset a quad bike’s highly sensitive centre of gravity. But no, DoL doesn’t seem to have any special guidelines of its own to offer. “Within this campaign we’re relying on the manufacturers guidelines on what is safe use…and that’s what we very much rely on, “ De Rooy says. (Even if farmers bought their quad bike back in the 1980s, DoL is plainly hoping that they’ve kept the brochure.)

Back to those fiercely independent farmers….Given that a ‘she’ll be right’ ethos is still seen to be prevalent, how do the relative lack of penalties avoid being taken by farmers as a virtual mandate to persist with behaviours that risk killing themselves and their children? Surely, unless there is a short, sharp shock – a stick – the carrots on offer won’t change the behaviours in question? “I think that’s always the challenge as a regulator,” De Rooy says. “There’s a fine balance between the stick and the carrot. The department’s focus is on the three steps of engaging, educating and enforcing. There is a group of farmers as employers that we want to talk to and say, your workers and yourselves need to go home to your families safely, at the end of the night. And there are a group of farmers who may be wilfully non-compliant. This is a long term behavioural focus…and we are mindful of some of the culture of the farming community. We are very reliant on that strong attitude of ‘she’ll be right’ and ‘we can make this happen.’ But its about trying to harness that, within safe boundaries.”

While the DoL remains fixed on its chosen path of persuasion, townies could be forgiven for wondering…just what is it that makes quad bikes almost inherently unsafe in some conditions? Essentially, this comes down to the high centre of gravity on a quad bike, which makes them prone to tipping over when cornering, or when being driven on a slope. This inherent instability means that ‘active’ riding techniques are needed to ride the bikes safely on undulating terrain.

Although they are marketed and sold as ATVs – “all terrain vehicles “– this isn’t really the case. So much so that Australian coroner John Olle has advocated dropping the ATV term entirely :

In the wake of an inquest into several quad-bike deaths, Coroner John Olle told quad bike manufacturers this month to never again market or describe the four-wheeled motorbikes as all-terrain vehicles. Mr Olle said to describe a quad bike as an all-terrain vehicle was a “serious overstatement of its capabilities”.

During 2011 in Australia, a battle raged between safety proponents on one side, and farming organisations and manufacturers on the other over whether it should be made mandatory for rollover protection bars to be fitted on quad bikes. As Coroner Ian Smith pointed out in his September 2009 inquest findings into the on-road quad bike death of Philip Osborne “ Roll over is the leading cause of injury with riders being crushed or trapped under an overturned vehicle.” His coronial records showed that between 2000 and 2007, of the 98 deaths involving quad bikes, 32 were due to the deceased being pinned under the vehicle. Yet as Smith noted in his Osborne findings, “ The manufacturers of these ATVs apparently strongly recommend that neither ROP (rollover protection) structure or bull bars be fitted…”

This opposition to roll bars was endorsed by the NZ Transport Agency, who stated (pages 6-7 Osborne decision) that ‘fitting roll bars to this type of vehicle will raise the centre of gravity, therefore making the vehicle more prone to roll-over….as always it is regrettable that another life has been lost on the road. In this case, it is felt that the best course of action would be for the NZTA to focus on promotional, rather than regulatory interventions.”

Resistance to mandatory rollover devices –and helmet use – was also evident in Australia among the farming community and manufacturers at the outset of 2011, Quad bike manufacturers even mounted a public campaign against their compulsory use, arguing that the rollover devices themselves could easily do more harm than good in the event of an accident, by pinning or injuring the rider. In October 2011 however, the manufacturers’ anti-roll bars campaign came to a screeching halt after researchers at Monash University and released findings of serious shortcomings in the US computer simulation research being relied upon by the manufacturers to support the ‘more harm than good.” argument.

Australian engineers analysed the model and found it predicted 99 of the 113 rollover accidents would result in head injuries. Yet the US and UK injury reports showed just 16 suffered head injuries. The model predicted just four of the 113 accidents would result in trunk injuries (shoulder to groin). Yet the injury reports showed 50 of the accidents resulted in trunk injuries. Queensland safety consultant Geoff McDonald said it was clear the model failed to simulate real-life rollover injuries, yet it was being used to test the effectiveness of rollover protection systems on ATVs.

The manufacturers have since terminated their campaign of resistance and have since co-operated with Australian safety authorities in forming a joint trans Tasman working party on quad bike rollover devices, in which our DoL have participated. Reportedly, the manufacturers in Australia and parent companies in the US and elsewhere wish to head off any possibility of a class action suit for injuries and death that could be attributed to their public hostility to devices that might have prevented such outcomes. New Zealanders, because of our ‘no fault’ ACC scheme, would not qualify for inclusion in any class action.

For now, New Zealand remains so far behind the play on rollover devices that they do not feature at all within its four key messages on safe quad bike use – a lack of priority significant in itself. In its responses to the Santos inquest, the Dol conceded that the its current safety campaign “does not currently include the installation of lap belts and a roll over protection structure.” While the DoL had “extensively” investigated these devices, “it does not consider it appropriate to include them as part of the safety campaign at present.”

However, later in the same submission, the DoL admitted that such devices could help reduce death and injury, but that it was now up to the manufacturers to design one suitable : “ The Department considers that either a change to the design of quad bikes, or a fitting that minimises the risk that the full weight of the bike (260kg on average) impacts on a rider trapped underneath could feasibly contribute to a reduction in serious harm resulting from quad bike rollover, However, it is not the Department’s role to design or approve the design of such solution….fitting a ROPS (rollover protection device) to a quad bike needs to remain a matter of personal choice for the farmer until this matter is resolved…”

Just what still needs to be resolved is difficult to imagine As the Monash researchers pointed out :

….the experimental tests by the University of South Queensland indicate that the Quad Bar CPD is capable of either preventing a complete roll or modifying the roll event to reduce the risk and severity to the rider for both side roll and back flip scenarios.

Sounds plausible. This same standardised rollover crush protection device – the Quad Bar – is already on the market. Yet as of April 2012, the Dol is still choosing to remain agnostic about the state of the science about whether rollover devices are even advisable – let alone whether they should be mandatory – pending some (unspecified) further evidence that it is not in the business of generating. Would that ‘wait and see’ approach also be because if DoL did publicly endorse roll bars at this point, this could be used against the manufacturers in a possible class action suit taken overseas? “ I’m certainly not aware of that as a consideration,” De Rooy replies, “in decision-making about where we focus.”

Under the Coroners Act 2006, the Coroners Office is not merely required to issue findings retrospectively on the cause of death. It is also bound to recommend practices that it considers likely to pre-empt further deaths in future. The benefits of hindsight are supposed to be applied to the exercise of foresight, and is therefore required by law to be “interventionist.” Yet currently, coroners remain at odds with the DoL over the virtues of rollover devices on quad bikes.

In his concluding remarks to the Osborne inquest for instance, Coroner Ian Smith stated flatly : “The Court does not and cannot accept that the fitting of rollbars to these vehicles should be a difficulty. It is a problem that must be solved.” In the Santos inquest, Smith repeated the need for DoL to take urgent action. “The issue of a roll over bar is still an important aspect of safety. Given the high volume and usage within NZ of these machines, I believe that the Department of Labour and authorities are able to impose pressure on the manufacturers to adapt the machines to incorporate a roll bar configuration. It is not rocket science.”

Judge Neil McLean (pictured left), the Chief Coroner, shares the Australian view that quad bikes are NOT in fact, all terrain vehicles, and he consciously tries to avoid using the “ATV” term. “They’re inherently quite unstable. It doesn’t take much to tip one over.” Helmets? “I think there’s a fairly consistent view coming through from coroners that the mandatory wearing of helmets is worth looking at. It would be difficult to monitor, and to police. But really, this is much the same debate as helmets for cyclists…” Making helmets mandatory with all the attendant publicity would serve an educational role in itself, McLean agrees, among farmers, contractors and with the general public. “ And it would make the deterrent factor a bit stronger.”

So he’d advocate making the wearing of helmets compulsory for quad bike users regardless of whether they were being used for farm work or for recreational use? “ I think so. I can’t see any reason why it should not be. With cycling and with motor cycling, it is mandatory.“ The extent of head injuries associated with quad bikes, he adds, also supports the need for such a change.

As for the contentious issue of children using quad bikes on farms….”It would seem painfully obvious,” McLean continues, “but parents should be alert that these aren’t toys.” Can and should the fitting of roll over bars be made compulsory? “ I’m hesitant to go firm on that,“ McLean replies.” I don’t have the evidence-based information to be emphatic on that. But it seems to me that there is an increasingly strong case for some sort of protective structure. I’m aware of the countervailing argument that sometimes they can be a hazard in themselves.“

Right. So what weight does he give in practice to this argument from farmers and manufacturers that roll bars do more harm than good ? “ I’m sceptical about it.” Mind you, in some cases, he’s aware of the claims that some fortunate individuals have been flung clear, and thank goodness there wasn’t a roll bar to stop them. Speaking in general terms though, does McLean think it is beyond the genius of manufacturers to come up with a roll over protection device that (a) doesn’t trap or impale the farmer and that ( b) doesn’t de-stabilise the bike ? “ I wouldn’t have thought so.” The next round of this increasingly testy exchange between the Coroners Office and the DoL will occur in Whangarei around September of this year, when a joint inquest into several quad bike related deaths in Northland is expected to be held.

Currently, a sea change in attitudes towards workplace health and safety regulation is in the wind. Whichever way it goes, the Royal Commission inquiry findings into the Pike River disaster will be decisive in setting the tone and the direction of occupational health and safety practices in New Zealand for the next twenty years. The owners of Pike River and the decay of the inspection regime for mining in New Zealand can expect to receive harsh criticism from the Commission – but the state of the mining inspectorate is only symptomatic of the wider attitude towards enforcement that made a disaster like Pike River not only possible, but virtually inevitable.

As mentioned, the 1992 HSE legislation passed in the full flush of the country’s romance with deregulation created a climate of voluntary compliance. In effect, employers were entrusted with setting the terms on those health and safety measures deemed practicable and/or affordable. Even in the worst case scenario, the risk of being caught out and fined for not taking “all practicable steps” to prevent accidents, is still being treated by some employers as an acceptable condition – and an acceptable cost – of doing business. Take for instance, this hair-raising testimony to the inquest into the fatal coolstore fire near Hamilton in 2008.

… The gas detection system at the coolstore was not designed for the highly flammable refrigerant being used. An inspection three years earlier had found some safety issues, but there was no obligation for that to be followed up. Department of Labour inspector Keith Stewart told the Coroners Court that it is the owners of coolstores who must make sure plants comply with the law, because the industry is self-regulating. He says no-one can be sure a similar event will not occur again.

And this repeat offender, to whom DoL had extended every latitude:

In the latest incident, Kiwi Plastic Company Limited was convicted of failing to guard two of its bag sealing machines. During an unannounced visit, Department of Labour inspectors found that the guards had been removed for approximately three months. The Department’s investigation also found that an employee had been taught to over-ride automatic shut down mechanisms. Kiwi Plastics and its director, Angelus Tay, were prosecuted for similar offences in 2002 when three employees were seriously injured. The Department has made several visits to the company since then and issued a number of warnings and improvement notices.

Clearly, firms have to consistently and flagrantly put workers at risk before they can expect to be caught. Even when found to be at risk of seriously injuring workers, such firms can still be left to behave for years afterwards with similar disregard for the safety rules. Think of how this situation will currently be interacting with the 90 day trial period for new workers. Would a young worker still on a 90 day trial period be more – or less – likely to query whether the conditions on site are putting their life and health at risk? I think we all know the answer to that one.

Even after the Pike River findings are released, it seems unlikely the current government would be inclined to change its basic approach. The HSE Act of 1992 was seen at the time to be a National government baby, and still is. Regardless, there are stirrings in the heartland, among rural women, normally regarded as the backbone of the National Party when in its gumboots.. Through the likes of the Rural Women New Zealand website farmers’ wives (and in some cases, farmers’ widows) are receiving more comprehensive and up-to-date information about quad bike safety developments on both sides of the Tasman than any mainstream news source currently offering to its readers and available.

Once the Pike River findings are made public, it will probably be left to the Opposition to push for a change in the cultural climate at the Department of Labour. Twenty years of laissez-faire attitudes to compliance will not be changed overnight – but we owe it to the victims of the current policy settings to at least make the effort.