Rethinking workplace health and safety

IT HAS been estimated that the cost of deaths, injuries and illnesses caused in New Zealand workplaces is between $4.3 billion and $8.7 billion per year. More people are injured from work-related causes than in road accidents. Every week a New Zealander dies on the job.

Health and safety statistics for the industrial sector make sobering reading. In 2004 there were 11 workplace deaths in manufacturing alone. By occupation, plant and machine operators and assemblers held the second highest injury tally across the economy, and the highest fatality rate. In total, 43 percent of all injuries in 2004 occurred in industrial or construction areas.

The statistics represent a huge burden, both in terms of human suffering and economic cost. And while a number of initiatives have been tried to address health and safety concerns in the industrial sector, all parties (employers, workers and government) agree that something more is needed.

There is a clear need for a culture that values health and safety to become more embedded in business, but how can this be achieved?

Regulation has been seen as one means of driving change. But regulatory measures are a negative incentive, and are limited in their effectiveness. This was reflected in the 2005 Select Australasia Employment Trends Survey, which showed that although 97 percent of employers surveyed had health and safety systems in place  as required by law  50 percent said they believe they have only an average general knowledge of health and safety in their workplace.

In reality there are much better reasons for employers to rethink their approach to health and safety.


Prevention better than cure

Not only is it intrinsically good for people to be fit and well; happier and healthier employees are more productive. An obvious positive outcome of safer workplaces is fewer lost-time injuries. And in the long-term, health and safety is a core component of corporate social responsibility and a factor influencing reputation. Prevention is better, for people and business alike, than a cure.

Recognising the positive benefits of an effective health and safety regime, the challenge is to transform attitudes within a company, and to introduce effective health and safety practices.

This has to start at the top. A companys health and safety initiatives will only ever be successful if they are genuinely reflected in the attitudes of senior management. This is true not only because managers have greater control over operational practice, but because the priority other staff members place on health and safety will directly reflect the attitudes of their seniors.

There are many ways a business can make a focus on health and safety pervasive. While health and safety are the responsibility of all employees, committees and site safety representatives can help lead internal conversations on health and safety issues. In keeping with a top-down approach, this should include discussions at management level.

Well-defined health and safety policies and processes will help to drive action. A clear commitment by management can be made in a written statement, and maintained through regular comment on key performance indicators. Goals can be set and processes outlined for identifying, evaluating, preventing or controlling workplace related hazards. Equipment observation and inspection schedules can be established, and workers assigned areas of responsibility with specific tasks. Protocols can be put in place for dealing with accidents, or the sudden awareness of a hazard.


Testing safety procedures

Whether health and safety measures are well established, or a business is only beginning to put them in place, systems testing and emergency drills are critical to ensure employees understand, and are correctly carrying out, safety procedures.

A level of first aid training and education can be maintained across the business by including appropriate training from the moment employees join the company. Induction should also be used to outline potential hazards on sites, and to introduce new employees to the organisations commitment to, and practices to maintain workplace safety.

The bottom line is that achieving a company-wide emphasis on health and safety doesnt have to be costly, and can bring significant benefits. Looking back, were making progress: New Zealands death rate from workplace injuries is at least 40 percent lower than it was 30 years ago. But to achieve the full benefits of better health and safety practices in the future, the next step is to change how we think.

Karin Clarke is general manager of Select Australasia in New Zealand, and the head of Select Industrial, based in Auckland. Select is part of the Vedior Group of companies which operates in 43 countries worldwide.


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