Workplace Safety Minister Michael Woodhouse has asked WorkSafe New Zealand to go easy on businesses and organisations which breach the country’s new employment safety law which comes into effect next week.
And to emphasise to WorkSafe staff the need to be business-friendly he has visited virtually every one of the organisation’s offices around New Zealand and talked to most staff.
Mr Woodhouse told POLITIK that Worksafe would initially prosecute only severe breaches of the legislation while it is settling in.
His move is a measure of the political sensitivity that surrounds the legislation with widespread fears that it might prove to be overly bureaucratic and restrictive on businesses and organisations affected by it.
Those fears have resonated on National’s backbench which led to the legislation being sent back to the Select Committee for a rewrite after opposition surfaced within the party, even making its way to the party’s annual conference floor.
Thus the extra care Mr Woodhouse is taking.
“It’s really important to me that business see WorkSafe as a partner not a punisher,” he says.
And he believes his campaign to change the culture within the organisation is starting to work.
“I’ve visited just about every branch and talked to just about every staff member since I became Minister 18 months ago.
“They’ve heard directly from me that they are a different organisation from the Department of Labour or Occupational Safety and Health (OSH).”
And he says that feedback he is getting from business indicates that there is a greater willingness on both sides for business and WorkSafe to work as partners to resolve safety issues.
“But he admits things can still go wrong.
“WorkSafe do 100 interactions with business and 99 are positive but there is one negative one and that’s the one that gets talked about at the Chamber of Commerce function or the pub.
“And it gets repeated and becomes the stuff of legend.
“And that’s the challenge they’ve got.
“Every single time they connect with business it’s a moment of truth.”
Mr Woodhouse is busy correcting what appears to be widespread misinformation about the new legislation.
He even posted on David Farrar’s “Kiwiblog” with a response to claims that a Wairarapa school would bar its pupils from climbing trees because if there was an accident the principal could be liable for a fine of $600,000.
“The legislation simply does not prevent any such activities.” he wrote.
“But there appears to be a few Chicken Lickens in the form of health and safety advisers who are drumming up fear as a business tactic.
“This is unfortunate, unhelpful and just plain untrue.
It is of course true that schools have a responsibility to take practical steps to keep their staff, students and other visitors to the school safe.
“This is nothing new.
“The current Health and Safety in Employment Act requires it.
“The concerns about the potential for fines of up to $600,000 overlooks that fact that they can currently be fined $500,000.”
“So kids can continue to climb trees, play games in the school yard, go on adventure activities, trips to the beach, school camps and any number of other things schools do.”
However there is criticism that the legislation is complex and that the pages of regulations attached to it compound that complexity.
“I accept it isn’t the easiest thing to consider,” he says.
And it is because he believes it is going to take business a while to get its head around it that he is proposing that WorkSafe go easy on prosecutions.
However there will still be prosecutions for serious breaches.
“If it’s a serious breach it needs to be treated seriously.
‘What I mean by that is if it is a serious breach next week it was almost certainly going to have been a serious breach last week.
“So what I am saying to WorkSafe NZ is your task is education and engagement before you leap to prosecute or infringements or things like that.”