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Playing politics with safety statistics

IMG_4303Over the last few days there has been a roaring debate over changes to health and safety law. The law was revised after the Pike River disaster claimed 29 lives. The Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety said “The number of people harmed at work is about enough to fill Eden Park four times. This is simply not good enough.”

The changes were supposed to reduce the unacceptably high rate of preventable workplace injuries and deaths (our rates are six times that of the U.K.) but instead, the Government is actually reducing the requirement for Health and Safety Representatives at workplaces, instead of fixing the law. They are removing this vital safety check from all businesses with under 20 staff, even if the employees request one, except for ‘high-risk’ industries.

Some of the industries the Government has classified as ‘high-risk’;

  • Rabbit breeding
  • Lavender farming
  • ‘Amusement’ like mini-golf and video-game parlours
  • Dog racing
  • Fur dressing.

Some of the industries that the Government has not included as ‘high- risk’

  • Beef, dairy, deer and poultry farming
  • Tree-pruning
  • Work in mental health, addictions, prisons or dementia units

How can this be?! The Government has categorised industries according to figures for workplace deaths and accidents since 2008. But the way industries are grouped seems suspicious – ‘cattle farming’ is separate from ‘other livestock farming’ for example. We know that farmers are just one of the groups who lobbied the Government to water down the bill. And it is not clear at all how the industry categories and statistics have been put together.

The only health industry listed is ‘Pharmaceutical and Medicinal Product Manufacturing’ under ‘Potential for Catastrophic Risk’ (!).

It is absurd that the Government has missed all other kinds of health work when, for example, there is an average of one physical assault on staff every day at Capital and Coast District Health Board. It’s not dissimilar in other DHBs; Waikato DHB reported 85 physical assaults on staff and 132 total assaults in the first four months of this year.

Nursing in challenging environments like prisons requires a very high level of skill and a high degree of personal risk. Any clinical health work can be physically challenging, with intense lifting, turning, and physicality, as outlined in our last blog on nurses’ health and safety.

Finally, not all workplace harm gets accurately recorded as an ‘injury’. High stress and workloads are recognised as common workplace hazards that cause physical and mental harm if not managed properly. Environments like hospices, oncology units and crammed emergency departments all have the potential to pose high risks to staff well-being.

It’s never going to be possible to eliminate every risk to health and safety. Health and safety depends on many different elements that are unique to each workplace. That’s why Health and Safety Representatives are so important for all workplaces.

Bending to the will of powerful lobbying interests will always result in wacky outcomes, but there is a simple answer that makes sense: one health and safety law for all.