Practical proposals for improving the Department of Labour’s approach to high hazard industries
Employers, principals and other people with duties under the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 and the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 have legal obligations to ensure the safety and wellbeing of people (and in the context of hazardous substances, the environment). The Department's role is to administer and enforce the legislation and to:
- help duty-holders to improve safety at places of work and the safety of people at work by providing information and education
- ascertain whether or not the Act has been or is likely to be complied with
- take all reasonable steps to ensure the Act is being complied with.
The Department of Labour's Labour Group is responsible for enforcing the Act in all places of work. However each workplace is different and can present different hazards and potential harms. In its enforcement work, the Department has tended to prioritise those workplaces where injury and harm are serious and frequent such as forestry or construction and where employers have exhibited an unwillingness or poor ability to effectively manage safety. This approach is a prudent use of a limited inspectorate resource and is consistent with modern regulatory principles.
However, some industries have inherent and significant risks or hazards even when managed by highly motivated and safety conscious operators. For a small subset of these high risk activities, the risk of failure can be catastrophic.
Fortunately, few New Zealand businesses or places of work have the potential for catastrophic failure. Furthermore, where higher risk activities or places of work exist, risks and hazards are generally well managed and, as a result, catastrophic failures are rare events.
Unfortunately, as the Pike River coal mine disaster and other recent large scale disasters such as the Japanese nuclear reactor disaster at Fukushima or the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico demonstrate, catastrophes can and do occur.
This paper intends to assist the Labour Group to identify an appropriate approach to managing high hazard industries. The paper is written for internal audiences and some of the technical detail assumes a reasonable level of knowledge on the issues and the legal/operational contexts. The paper makes a number of recommendations and potential actions for the Group to consider as it works to improve the Department’s approach to high hazard industries.