Changing the health and safety mindset

Many organisations think they do enough regarding meeting their H&S compliance obligations. It’s often not until someone is killed or seriously injured that they realise they haven’t been doing enough. John Ford, WSP Principal – Health, Safety and Environment, discusses why.

Each year in New Zealand, between 750 and 1,000 people die prematurely from a work-related life-shortening health impact and around 70 people die from a safety incident at work. These are all preventable with good H&S practices.

So why aren’t they doing more to prevent these?

After nearly 20 years in the H&S industry I firmly believe that most organisations genuinely care about health and safety, but they simply don’t think that the worst could happen in their business, or to someone they engage. Or, that if it does happen, then the person will be ok. Classic Kiwi “She’ll be right.”

Data tells a different story. Enforcement activities by WorkSafe New Zealand have increased from an average of 350 per month in 2017 and around 900 per month in 2018, to over 1,000 per month in 2019.

This isn’t a revenue gathering exercise – this is saving the lives of people and avoiding massive and life-changing impact on family, friends, work colleagues following a fatality, serious injury or life-shortening impact to health.

Expectations around H&S compliance have increased since the Pike River fatalities. As such, WorkSafe is more likely to prosecute an organisation or an individual for a breach of the HSWA 2015 or regulations.

Organisations focus considerably more time and resources into improving practices after someone has died or suffered a life-changing injury or illness, or after they have been prosecuted by WorkSafe, than they do before the event.

Yet early increased investment in prevention can prevent costly consequences.

Fines from prosecutions of breaches of the Health and Safety at Work Act (HSWA) 2015 are getting steadily larger and have now exceeded $500,000. Reparations and court costs are often in addition to this resulting in direct costs exceeding $800,000, and the internal cost to business can often result in this costing well over $1m.

What’s more, the level of publicity around successful prosecutions is increasing and can result in significant reputational damage.

What we need is a change in mindset. Rather than seeing H&S as a burden it should be approached with a positive, open mindset and a desire to make workplaces safer, healthier, better places to work.

This means accepting that it will increase costs in the short term, but that those costs will deliver multiple dividends through improved productivity, and a more caring and safer workplace that genuinely cares about people.

H&S should be viewed as an investment in people. Businesses are reliant on good people, without them they have nothing, so the health, safety and wellbeing of them is vital.

Leaders also need to consider whether, if the worst was to happen, they have truly done everything they could.

To find out more about WSP's Safety Health & Environment Consultancy Service click here.