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We need safety management, not safety bureaucracy

Opinion article written by Francois Barton, republished from NBR

An increase in serious workplace injuries shows a different approach is required.

Despite nearly a decade of concerted effort, New Zealand’s workplace injury performance hasn’t experienced the transformational change called for after the Pike River mining disaster in 2010, which killed 29 men.

In fact, after declining from 2012 to 2016, serious work-related injuries began to increase again in 2017 and continued to rise in 2018, according to recent Statistics NZ data.

For every 100,000 full-time employees in 2018, 17 were injured so badly they ended up in hospital, with some of them injured badly enough they could have died. 

The Statistics NZ data appears to show a more encouraging trend for fatalities, with the rate of deaths now lower than it was in 2011. But last year was a sobering reminder that this rate of reduction can be brittle – with 82 workers losing their lives in accidents, up from 57 the year previously. And that doesn’t include the annual continuing burden of an estimated 750-900 people losing their lives from work-related illnesses.

Statistics NZ, WorkSafe and ACC data show the things that are seriously harming and killing workers are not surprises – the main causes of workplace harm are well known. They are work-related road accidents, quad bike rollovers, falls from heights, being hit by machinery and exposure to toxic substances such as asbestos, chemicals and silica dust.

So how should we respond to this information? What does it mean for the work that government, businesses, workers and unions should be doing now and in future to protect workers? 

My own view is that doing more of the same isn’t going to get us the improvements we’re looking for. We need to have the courage to do some things differently – and to get smarter about where we focus our attention. 

For example, many New Zealand businesses run a risk or hazard register. When an issue arises, the risk is added to the register, along with an estimate of its severity and how it will be controlled.

But in many workplaces these registers contain dozens or even hundreds of entries – everything from hot water taps to falls from height. The sheer volume of risks recorded makes it nigh impossible to keep track of them all, let alone actually do something about them. This is safety bureaucracy, not safety management.

For every 100,000 full-time employees in 2018, 17 were injured so badly they ended up in hospital, with some injured badly enough they could have died. 

A smarter approach, and one supported by WorkSafe, is for businesses to identify their critical risks and to focus attention on those. Critical risks are the ones that can kill, or cause life-changing harm, to workers. 

But identifying critical risks is just the first step. According to one of the world’s pre-eminent health and safety thinkers, US organisational psychologist Dr Todd Conklin, the second and more important step is to establish controls to stop those risks leading to people getting hurt.

Conklin, who did a speaking tour of New Zealand earlier this year, says effective risk control is the

‘magic potion’ for improving health and safety.

He emphasises this is more than just trying to prevent accidents happening because human error means accidents are inevitable. Businesses need to accept that inevitability and establish controls that mean when failures occur, people don’t get killed or seriously harmed. This is the thinking behind seat belts and airbags. They are not about eliminating car crashes – they allow for “safe failure.”

The need to protect people when an incident happens, in addition to trying to prevent them, was a key lesson from Pike River. The design of the Pike River mine included little to save workers in the event of an explosion because its owners never really thought one would happen.

Controlling critical risk Conklin points out that in health and safety, people frequently talk about ‘managing risks’ – a term that doesn’t make a lot of sense given that by definition risks are unpredictable and unmanageable.

Rather, the thing we can actually manage is our risk controls, he says.

So that’s where the attention and the effort need to go – on managing your critical risk controls.

Conklin has three questions he suggests every business should ask itself and its workers to help improve the way it manages its risks controls:

  • In this business, what can kill people?

  • When an incident happens, what do we have in place to stop people from dying?

  • Is that enough?

If we want to reduce the numbers of New Zealanders dying at work, we need these questions to be part of the discussions by boards and executive teams. Those discussions also need to involve people with a direct connection to things going wrong – unions, workers, clients, investors and even regulators. 

Asking these questions is straightforward. Making sense of the answers and taking action accordingly, however, will require courage, competence and commitment.

I believe we’re up for that challenge.


Francois Barton is executive director of the Business Leaders’ Health and Safety Forum. The Forum is a not-for-profit that supports and motivates CEOs to improve their leadership of health and safety. See more from Dr Conklin at



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