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Close up shot of the torso of a construction worker in high vis vest holding a hard hat, in front of a building site

In April 2016, new safety regulations were put in place – about 800 pages of them. It’s easy to roll our eyes imagining such a paralysing pile of paperwork, then again, this did come about after the tragedy at Pike River.

The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 (HSWA) took effect in April 2016 following the Royal Commission into the Pike River disaster. Its objective was regulating workplace safety requirements for all New Zealand businesses.

The rules affect companies of all sizes and in all areas of the construction industry, including sole traders, who now need to comply with all the safety regulations. If not, they risk a fine or even pay a percentage of ACC costs if someone’s injured while working onsite. The number of claims made to ACC each year related to a business also impacts levies the following year.

Specific rules around working at height were introduced after WorkSafe research showed that more than 50 percent of falls were from less than three metres, while about 70 percent of falls were from ladders and roofs. The tall and the short of it is, if you’re working onsite above 1.8 metres, you’ve got to use safety equipment like scaffolding or a cherry-picker instead of a ladder.

But for tradies in construction, these requirements can add compliance costs to jobs. According to Grant Florence, Chief Executive of New Zealand Certified Builders, the regulations (especially working from heights) lead to increased build costs, many of which are passed on to customers.

Florence says the cost may seem excessive, but surely everyone in construction has the right to a safe work environment and if the measures prevent even one serious accident or death, the costs seem insignificant. He’s seen figures that show the new working from heights requirements have reduced accidents from falls in the industry. That makes sense, but the problem is this: there are no statistics to show the new safety regulations are having an overall effect on accidents. The rate for work-related injuries in the construction sector was significantly lower in 2016 and 2017 than in years prior to 2014. That said, 2015 had already shown a sharp decline in the number of construction injuries, so the reduction can't be attributed to rules introduced in April 2016.

What’s more, serious work-related non-fatal injury rates in construction spiked in 2017 after four years of declining rates – to the highest rate of injuries in a decade. Health and safety consultant and risk manager Jon-Paul Hale of Willowgrove Consulting says the Act isn't having much impact on the rate of accidents in the construction sector because “it's one thing to implement a system that’s a legal requirement, and another thing to actively manage risk”.

“Until the consequences are felt, e.g. a serious accident occurring on-site, health and safety is just a box-ticking exercise for many tradies who believe it's extra cost and red tape, rather than seeing the benefits of a safer workplace.”

To manage risk, Hale recommends job safety analysis for every worksite. Make sure risks are identified objectively and stop to assess a situation before starting work. For example, clearly mark any holes, label or store hazardous chemicals and make sure everyone on-site knows how to minimize hazards. Hale believes safety requirements need to ensure safety, without significantly reducing productivity or increasing costs.

“In isolation it may sound pedantic, but when health and safety measures are implemented well, you get a symphony of stuff that keeps people safe.” By managing risk, tradies can also gain other benefits, like a cutback in costs through reduced ACC levies. Hale has saved one client $22,500 per year just by restructuring ACC in their business and keeping levies low with better safety measures.

The WorkSafe website provides common sense pointers to help businesses identify, assess and manage risks in an objective way. There are basic tools to assist with hazard identification in the construction industry – the ‘Around the Block tool,’ for example – however there are no specifics in the breakdown of risks by industry, despite construction being high risk.

So, your best bet to comply with the Health and Safety at Work Act is to speak with a local health and safety expert. Consider asking for a review of job safety analysis plans, ACC levies, workplace insurance policies and other safety-related measures.

Safety tips:

  • Train your staff regularly in health and safety systems and procedures.
  • Ensure warning signs are clearly displayed where required.
  • Create specific safety procedures for machinery and equipment.
  • Ensure that workers operating equipment have the necessary training and skill set.
  • Establish heavy lifting and manual labour procedures.
  • Monitor atmospheric conditions such as light, noise, heat and ventilation.
  • Provide personal protective equipment for general work and specialist safety equipment for hazardous tasks.
  • Create accident reporting systems and procedures that all workers know how to follow.
  • Create contractor induction systems and procedures so everyone onsite is briefed consistently.
  • Actively manage risk through job safety analysis of every individual worksite.

These safety tips are courtesy of Willowgrove Consulting. For more info visit worksafe.govt.nz or willowgroveinsurance.co.nz.