Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Iain Lees-Galloway wants a greater focus on how to reduce all kinds of workplace harm in a new health and safety strategy. 

His first goal is to address what will make the biggest impact in reducing harm, identifying better management of work-related health risks including mental health, helping business most at risk such as dangerous sectors and small firms, and also supporting at-risk workers including Maori, Pasifika, migrants and seasonal workers. The second goal is to build capability, using indicators to track workplace harm. 

“To make a real difference, we need to take a broader view of work-related health risks, including mental health,” Lees-Galloway said in a statement. “Equally important to me is to lift the outcomes for workers at greatest risk, including Maori, who are over-represented in injury statistics. These are reflected in the strategy’s priority areas.”

Lees-Galloway began consulting on a draft document in April and had hoped to get back with a final strategy in October or November. That paper had four priorities: establishing a broader set of measures and targets to replace the current focus on injury; creating a durable and proportionate regulatory framework; putting workers at the centre of the system; and ensuring strong leadership across business, union and government.

He said the 127 submissions indicated strong support for the overall approach, goals and priority areas. A summary of those submissions compiled by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment strongly backed the focus on high-risk sectors and workers, and small businesses. Improving the health and safety skills of all people in the system was a regular theme, it said. 

“Many submitters wanted more and better education and training, and suggested that New Zealand needs to develop a better health and safety culture,” MBIE’s summary said. “Many submitters also raised concerns about poor compliance, and perceived inadequate and inconsistent enforcement.” 

Lees-Galloway said the next step is to act on the strategy and he expects government agencies will align their health and safety work with the new vision. 

“I will establish a stakeholder reference group to provide me advice on progress and help maintain that long-term focus and momentum,” he said. 

A strategy project will be established next year, followed by the government’s action plan, with industry and sector groups identifying the next steps. 

The new strategy, with its broader definitions of what constitutes work-related harm, comes hot on the heels of an OECD report into New Zealand’s regulatory response to mental health during the past decade.

The report estimated mental health issues and the adverse impacts on wellbeing cost the economy $12-to-$15 billion a year, or 4-to-5 percent of annual GDP, through increased health spending, lost labour productivity and social spending on unemployment. 

Among the recommendations, the OECD said the government should consider reforming Accident Compensation Corp to expand coverage to illness as well as accidents and work-related injuries. 

A full expansion would need an overhaul of New Zealand’s health system and could be potentially costly, and partial expansions could also be made to work, the report said. 

“The risk to the financial sustainability to the scheme and the increased burden an expansion would likely place on both levy and taxpayers is the main reason why policymakers are shying away from implementing the Woodhouse principles,” it said, referring to the ACC scheme’s architect in the 1970s, Sir Owen Woodhouse. 

“Transition costs could be partly offset by ACC’s large reserve or investment fund and in the longer term, considerable savings can be realised from eliminating the costly process of identifying eligible injuries,” it said. 

Crown forecasts released today show ACC’s future liabilities were estimated at $43.31 billion as at June 30, and may rise to $53.55 billion in June 2023. Its assets are seen rising to $47.41 billion by 2023 from $41.96 billion. That sees the forecast net liability for the scheme rising to $6.14 billion by 2023 from $1.36 billion in 2018. 

The government this week announced levy cuts to the scheme, saying its solvency rates in the various accounts were higher than the long-run target and were able to be wound down. ACC wanted to raise its levies in part to help cover refunds after some businesses were overcharged for 16 years. 

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