Culture change needed before safety on farms improves
Last week, my colleague Sean Maskill wrote about the new Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 and how this new safety law will bring about a safer work environment for farmers.
However, since the new law came into force on 4 April 2016, work related deaths have not dropped. As at October 2016, 43 people have died at work this year (which is the same number for all of 2015) and of those, 15 have been in the agricultural industry.
The new law has no doubt, brought about some desirable changes but what also needs to happen to make a real difference, is an attitude change by farmers about safety in the workplace.
Sean highlighted two examples of positive change. Firstly, that farm officers now have a due diligence duty to ensure that their business meets its health and safety obligations. Secondly, the increase of fines for breaches and the new range of enforcement tools (such as enforceable undertakings and adverse publicity orders) will incentivise compliance.
While the threat of increased fines might incentivise some to take health and safety seriously, whether ability to impose increased fines will have any real effect in practice will depend on how the Courts (when sentencing offenders) apply the new law. The last time parliament increased the maximum fines for health and safety breaches was in 2002 (when the maximum fines were increased from $50,000 to $250,000). However, it took some time to see a corresponding increase in the actual fines by the Court. As no cases have yet to come before the Courts, it remains to be seen how the new fines will be imposed.
Sean also said that the new law simplifies things. There is now a ‘one size fits all’ safety duty. However farms are unique workplaces, and a ‘one size fits all’ approach might not be best.
For example, a farm usually includes someone’s home, and often farmers provide access over their farms to other people like volunteers or the public generally. The new law takes some of these unique factors into account by restricting the safety duties only to working areas of the farm. But farmers will be required to determine what the immediate working areas of the farm are, and this can often be difficult to define in practice.
In the workplace, new laws only go so far in effecting positive changes in health and safety. Workplace culture and attitudes toward health and safety also need to change.
Standing up and taking notice after a fatal accident is too late. Prevention is always better than a cure, and although New Zealand is heading in the right direction in recognising the need for changes in the health and safety laws, farmers and employees alike need to do their part in taking health and safety seriously to keep themselves, and those around them safe at work.
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