A political row within the National Party could ignite this week if a Select Committee does not make major modifications to a one of the Government’s most complex pieces of legislation which will impact every business, workplace and farm and even sports events in the country.
The Health and Safety in Employment Reform Bill is proposing a substantial overhaul of the way businesses, workplaces and farms manage health and safety issues.
It is expected to be reported back from the Transport and Industrial Relations Select Committee on Thursday.
The Bill has the potential to anger National’s small business and farming heartland and already its worrying some MPs.
There are reports that one backbencher, Maurice Williamson, has already signalled his opposition to the Bill at a National Caucus meeting.
One source even suggested he could cross the floow and vote against the Bill if it was not changed.
However though one senior Minister discounted that claim he told “POLITIK” that “a number of us” agree with him on his concerns about what is in the Bill.
All of which suggests that the Government is headed for a substantial back down on some aspects of the Bill.
The Bill had its origins partly in the Pike River Disaster and dramatically escalates the penalties for health and safety breaches to a maximum $3 million dollars fine (for a company) and (for an individual) $600,000 and/or five years in jail.
At its heart instead of an employer or employee is what it calls PCBU — Person Conducting Business or Undertaking.
The PCBU’s are supposed to ensure the safety or workers, or other people on their premises or site or affected by their activities.
There are also enhanced requirements for worker participation which would give wide powers to elected health and safety representatives.
Whilst most submitting to the Select Committee have supported the overall principles of the Bill, many have been critical of its detail.
Federated Framers has said it is not practical to insist that a farmer be held responsible for everybody on their property at any one time and if it is not amended it would be likely to stop farmers allowing hunters and others to access their properties.
The Bill has drawn considerable criticism over its inclusion of volunteer organisations who need have only one paid employee to come within its scope.
Local Government New Zealand said the proposal would treat all volunteers as workers, making councils potentially liable for local residents who choose to pitch in at events and projects such as beach clean-ups or when school groups plant trees in parks.
Volunteering New Zealand Chairperson, Jan Harrison, says the New Zealand public would have fewer opportunities to get involved locally if the Reform Bill is passed as it is.
Sport New Zealand says it would mean that voluntary sports bodies like cycling clubs running a cycling event who had volunteers working as marshals, would be responsible for their safety as if they were their employees (as well as for the safety of the athletes and public out on the road).
“In this case, the need for an authorised traffic management plan becomes essential, together with appropriate briefings and the use of appropriate equipment,” it said in a commentary on the Bill.
Most business organisations have generally supported the Bill but some have been more critical.
Ports of Auckland and the meat company Affco, who both have a record of taking a hard-line with trade unions worried that the Bill’s creation of elected health and safety representatives with wide powers could be used in a vexatious manner by a disgruntled employee.
The Meat Industry Association described the Bill as highly prescriptive and punitive.
The New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute (based at the geothermal valley, Whakarewarewa in Rotorua) wants clarification on what a situation where an uncontrolled escape of gas or steam needed to be notified as a work hazard.
The Institute also disagreed with a provision that would require that all who entered the site either as contractors or employees would be deemed as “workers” and therefore required to be consulted on health and safety requirements.
“Our environment here at Te Puia is highly diverse, we contract dozens of contractors and sub contractors or “workers,” it said.
“The time and money involved in engaging all “workers” through a due diligence process that could effectively last a whole day for each would be onerous, time consuming and expensive.”
Perhaps the most unusual submission on the Bill came from the Canterbury branch of the New Zealand Bee-Keepers Association who were worried not about the health and safety of humans but of bees.
“It is a function of the National Beekeepers Association of NZ Inc., (NBA), to promote the health and safety of bees,” it said.
“We conduct this for the benefit of bees in their natural environment and for our members who undertake beekeeping as a business or hobby.
We also promote the sustainability of beekeeping for the benefit of the wider community because of the pollination function that bees perform. “
The beekeepers wanted to remind the committee to keep bees in mind because the Health and Safety Reform Act proposed changes to the Hazardous Substances Act which governed the accidental extermination of bees by agricultural chemicals.