There can be no box-ticking in a Covid workplace

Workplace safety improved after the Pike River tragedy, but is still too narrowly focused on accidents and remains a box-ticking exercise for many despite a rising workplace death toll. Covid-19 should be a spur to greater cultural change and truly safe and accountable work practices, says Rod Oram

We’ll have to trust each other a lot as we ease our way out of lockdown, hopefully beginning next Thursday if the Government is confident we can maintain our progress against Covid-19.

The basics are simple. Physical separation and good hygiene keep the virus at bay. But the more activity we allow, the greater the trust people will need in each other to achieve them.

The Government has outlined what it will allow us to do when we step down from Alert Level 4 to 3. But it will have to trust us to live within those easier limits. It’s impossible for it to detail and enforce them to the Nth degree.

Many businesses have used the lockdown well to prepare for the return to work. But their suppliers, workers and customers will have to trust they’ve put adequate systems in place. Economic activity is too complicated for full transparency and accountability.

Within days of going to Level 3 we’ll know if we’re winning or losing. Key virus stats will tell us. If they keep falling, the Government will in due course move us down to Level 2. But a further reopening of the economy will require even greater trust. Small lapses could cause a resurgence of the virus.

Our progress so far against the virus, though, should give us confidence we can build the requisite capability and trust. Many businesses, for example, have drastically reorganised themselves to fight the virus and its economic impacts.

Such resilience is apparent across the spectrum, from essential companies working harder than ever to others which have lost all their business in the lockdown. You’ll find stories about some of them in the “Recommend reads” to the right of this column.

But essential to that resilience are safe workplaces that protect staff, suppliers and customers from the virus. Rightly, safety is the fundamental test the Government will apply for allowing activity under Level 3 and below, versus the essential services test it applies currently under Level 4.

Yet, safe workplaces are not yet fully embedded in our cultural and economic DNA. After the utterly unconscionable Pike River tragedy in 2010, we finally acknowledged our appallingly high rates of workplace injuries and deaths compared with many other developed countries.

In response, the Key government massively overhauled workplace health and safety regulation with its 2015 Act. This included far more explicit legal obligations on people and organisations responsible for workplace health and safety.

As a result the culture is changing but it is still focused too narrowly on safety (reducing accidents) rather than more widely on health (reducing gradual, long term impairments to it which ultimately impose a greater cost on individuals and society). Worse, for some businesses health and safety is still a box ticking exercise. Overall, our workplace death toll is still rising.

However, there is good evidence to suggest the Covid crisis will spur us to greater cultural change and thus the creation of the safe workplaces we have to have across society. Here are some key examples of the resources on offer:

- WorkSafe New Zealand, the health and safety regulator, has a range of advice on how workplaces should respond to Covid.

- The Health and Safety Association New Zealand is an umbrella organisation that brings together more than a dozen bodies such as the NZ Institute of Safety Management, the NZ Safety Council and the NZ Occupational Hygiene Society. HASANZ is offering Covid-related resources and a register of accredited health and safety advisers.

One of the big challenges as people go back to work is to ensure they do so safely, says Greg Dearsly, president of the NZISM. “Whenever we return to work, such as after the Christmas holidays, we see a significant spike in accidents and injuries.” Factors include people being relaxed and out of their usual routines.

Coming back from the Covid lockdown could be even harder, he says, particularly if people are worried about losing their jobs. He is urging all workplaces to have a thorough check of machines, processes, hazards and risks. He also emphasises the critical importance of good leadership, clear communications and involvement of staff in creating and maintaining healthy, safe and productive workplaces.

- The Business Leaders Health and Safety Forum, founded in 2010, has a membership of some 370 CEOs. Its Covid resources are here.

One of the conversations among the CEOs is about “the need for empathy has never been so great,” says Francois Barton, the forum’s executive director. For example, when a supplier is on the verge of bankruptcy because of the lockdown, engaging with it to find a solution that benefits both parties “delivers far more than a hard-line, contractual approach.”

- Construction Health and Safety New Zealand was established in 2018 as a new peak body for the sector’s workplace health and safety. Its Covid resources include a new framework standard to guide construction companies on how to operate in these virus times. It covers subjects such as staff track and trace, work practices, hygiene and site cleaning.

Working with organisations such as SiteSafe and the Master Builders Association it has also developed a protocol to apply the standard to large construction sites and one for residential construction sites. It will publish these soon on its website. It will also provide advice to companies on implementing them and their feedback will help it adapt and evolve its advice.

“This has been a collective effort across the sector,” says Chris Alderson, CHASNZ’s chief executive. “It’s been a real opportunity for the industry to come together.”

- ShopCare, founded last year, grew out of the Food & Grocery Council’s health and safety working group. ACC contributes 80 percent of its funding and major retail sector companies fund the rest. It’s working across the sector’s supply chain. The health and safety app it developed with Safe365 includes a Covid risk assessment tool.

- Some of the main issues employers and employees should be considering about returning to work under Level 3 are described by Liz Coats, a partner at Bell Gully, in this recent Newsroom article

While all the above is encouraging, complete engagement of staff is the absolute key to healthy and safe workplaces, now more than ever. The 2015 legislation guarantees them the legal right to raise and get redress on any health and safety issue.

But if workplaces are to meet the fundamental test of “safe” the Government is applying to the gradual easing of the lockdown, workers must have strong, new mechanisms to ensure they have the transparency, power and recourse to make them and keep them safe.

Trust is the key to this. It is reciprocal. We earn it and return it through our actions. Doing that well in the workplace will help us do it well across society.

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