Gordon Campbell on the government’s stalling on health and safety

In the last five years, workplace accidents have killed nearly 300 workers in this country. Yesterday’s accident at a quarry in Canterbury once again demonstrates the serious and avoidable problem that New Zealand has with workplace health and safety. Since the early 1990s, New Zealand’s romance with a safety regime that relies on voluntary compliance by employers (and light-handed regulation) has been killing and injuring workers at a rate almost double that across the Tasman, and significantly worse than other developed countries.

In line with the voluntary nature of the Employment Contracts Act that was passed at roughly the same time, the 1992 Health Safety and Employment Act sought to liberate employers from the former system of centralised workplace inspection and regulation, and promoted 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, operating under a health and safety regime that exists 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 simultaneously, the departmental 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.

Here’s how that system resulted in the death in 2013 of forestry worker John Sanderson, as outlined in the CTU’s submission on the currently stalled revision of our health and safety laws.

First, you see the confusing welter of contractors and subcontractors and lack of clarity about responsibility, and the lack of provision of suitable equipment – along with the lack of any mechanism whereby workers under pressure to boost production can alert anyone to the dangers they can readily see on the work site. In John Sanderson’s case, here was the structure:

Taumata Plantations was the investment company that owned the trees. Hancocks Forest Management was engaged to manage the harvesting of the trees. Moutere Logging Limited was engaged by Hancocks to do the work and MLL subcontracted it to Cable Harvesting Limited It appears CHL was a subsidiary of MLL formed especially to fell this block and used its health and safety systems. John worked for CHL.

This is what happened:

Hancocks identified the dangers of the slope – it was heavy with undergrowth, it was extremely steep and slippery underfoot and had a number of other hazards. Mr Sanderson’s partner was interviewed as part of the investigation but her views are not included in the report. In her interview, Rosemary Armstrong said that on this job “for the first time ever” John had come home and spoken about the dangerous conditions. She quoted him as saying “Fuck Rose, it’s fucking dangerous”. He said it was difficult even walking up to the site it was so steep.

Yet there was no way the dangers felt by John and his co-workers could be communicated to anyone in a position where they were willing or able to do much about it:

The danger on the site had subsequently been confirmed to the CTU by workers that replaced John. Rose asked him why he did not say anything to the company. He said he said he could not as it was “his job”. It was his partner’s view that John did not have the correct gear, that there had been no provision for him to easily carry a radio (his leg was amputated, he could not reach his radio and he bled to death), and that he was low paid with substandard gear he had provided himself. She thought he should have had studded boots and that this area of forest should not have been harvested. There were no elected health and safety representatives on this worksite. ( My emphasis.)

The health and safety framework on site was inadequate:

According to media reports MLL employs up to 100 staff but this subsidiary was small and was not required to have representatives. It is unclear if there
are elected representatives in any other part of this company and even if there was an entitlement of those workers to have a representative system, without industrial support [ie. a strong union presence] they would be unlikely to “ask” for it. This resulted in a number of elements of the “paper” and “audit based” safety systems recorded in the MBIE report as being ineffective.

Currently, the attempt to fix this kind of situation is being resisted by several National Party MPs who have succeeded in stalling the attempt to revise the health and safety legislation and bring it up to international standards. The reasons why they’re doing so are examined below.

As the Pike River tragedy recedes into history, the changes to our health and safety laws and practices advocated by both the Royal Commission and by the independent Task Force on Workplace Health and Safety have been sidelined. During the past fortnight, a group of National MPs rejected the latest version of the new, proposed health and safety legislation – even though the original draft had already been watered down substantially.

Back in 2013, the Task Force warned against political meddling in the reform process. In its view, New Zealand’s current health and safety laws and practices as defined by the 1992 Health, Safety and Employment Act are “appalling, unacceptable and unsustainable…[we] have looked at how countries with much better workplace health and safety records do it. In our view, we have found a good balance requiring compromise by all parties that will both improve outcomes substantially, and respect all parties’ needs. Make substantial changes to that balance and we will lose the vital support of some participants, and significantly weaken the potential benefits.” Similarly, the Pike River Royal Commission had concluded that “major change is required.”

Regardless, many of the counter-measures recommended have been scrapped by National hardliners – who are demanding even further concessions before the draft legislation returns to Parliament in late July. A number of safety requirements on small businesses have already been jettisoned and along with them, any suggestion of mandatory worker involvement in safety practices. Any firm with fewer than 20 workers for instance, will no longer be required to allow its employees to elect a health and safety representative. This exemption is significant, given that contracting out has resulted in a confusing web of small contractors and sub-contractors – as pointed out above, in the John Sanderson case – thereby leaving the responsibility for health and safety measures unclear, and liable to being given only token recognition.

In the draft Bill, worker participation in health and safety will now apply only to larger firms. Small firms will not have to appoint health and safety committees – thus letting small sub-contractors slip through the net. Several pages of clauses relating to the powers and responsibilities of health and safety representatives have been deleted from the legislation. A clause stipulating that work should only be carried out by a person with prescribed experience and qualifications has also been deleted etc. etc.

Why have these eminently sensible measures been deleted, and why has the urgently needed revision been stalled? The hostility among National MPs (and employer groups) to greater worker participation in health and safety measures seems to be based on fears that such measures could become a ‘Trojan horse’ that unions might use for leverage in other areas. This is the atavistic fear behind Prime Minister John Key’s claim that “ balance” is required before any revision of the legislation can proceed. These fears are unfounded, especially since many workplace accidents actually occur on non-unionised sites. Moreover, almost every other developed country sees a key role for worker representatives in accident and injury prevention – and without this resulting in the overthrow of capitalism.

In late July, the full extent of the rollback of the Royal Commission and Task Force recommendations will become clear. The risk is that our dangerously out-dated regime of deregulation and voluntary compliance – which was found to have led directly to the Pike River tragedy – will be perpetuated, for what looks like pure political expedience. Whose political expedience would that be , exactly? Reportedly, backbench MP Judith Collins has been among the resistance:

Former minister Judith Collins is thought to have been one of those in caucus promoting changes to the bill as well as MPs who have been lobbied by small businesses in their electorates.

Any previous hopes that Collins may have had to succeed John Key are being thwarted by the rise and rise of Paula Bennett. In that respect, the health and safety revolt seems to have been an attempt by Collins to rally her support within caucus. As a result, law changes meant to protect the health and safety of workers around the country are being held hostage by a mixture of union hostility, employer lobbying and petty ambition… and by conflict within the National Party’s own workplace. Not to mention the ineffectual role of a leader who seems unwilling or unable (once again) to bring Collins into line.

The Twist

Talking about watering down the original… below, there’s a terrific dance montage/homage to Chubby Checker’s early 1960s mega-hit “The Twist” …The original had been written and recorded by Hank Ballard a few years earlier, yet according to legend, “The Twist” was actually written by a gospel performer ( there are several candidates) who allegedly passed a sexier version of the song on to Ballard, who’d had a risqué-at-the time hit called “Work With Me Annie”.

Ballard’s 1958 version of “The Twist” had remained consistently popular on the same Buddy Deane TV show in Baltimore that later inspired John Waters to write Hairspray, and from there the song wended its way to the wholesome Dick Clark and his American Bandstand TV show in Philadelphia. Ultimately, Clark found a high voiced Hank Ballard soundalike to re-record it – namely an 18 year old chicken factory worker called Ernest Evans, renamed by Clark’s wife as “Chubby Checker” in a punning reference to Fats Domino. The rest is history, and this clip captures it pretty well.

There’s something about that title, though. About five years ago, the Scottish band Frightened Rabbit wrote a brilliant, completely different song called “The Twist” that’s more in line with the need for human heat that Hank Ballard was originally singing about.

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