by Daphna Whitmore
For years workplace fatalities were faceless numbers. The real human sorrow barely rated a mention in the media until the disaster at Pike River. The scale of the tragedy in that mine gave a glimpse of what was wrong at many workplaces. The site was not fully unionised, the workers were not in charge of health and safety, and profits were put before safety. No one has been held to account for those 29 deaths. The company, the bosses, the governments – Labour and National – that blocked union rights and oversaw the demise of a culture of workplace safety, were all complicit.
Worksafe’s official figures record an annual average of 75 people dying each year on the job in New Zealand and one in ten injured at work. A further 600-900 die from work-related diseases every year. What doesn’t get counted is the harm to workers’ health from shift work, which is now commonplace as a raft of industries keep businesses running at all hours. Fatalities are greatest in agriculture, forestry, fishing, mining, construction and transport industries. These blue collar jobs now lack union strength as membership has dwindled.
After a series of inquiries and investigations into Pike River that all concluded something has to be done, the Government has been compelled to act. The Health and Safety Bill before parliament will give workers some clout around health and safety issues. The Bill will hold directors of companies more responsible for workplace deaths and injuries, and give joint responsibility to companies that share a workplace, and most importantly will increase the power of health and safety representatives and strengthen enforcement measures.
Not everyone thinks there is a problem to be fixed. Peter Talley, recently knighted for services to business, is leading the opposition to the law change saying it will be misused by unscrupulous workers and unions. He is the managing director of Talleys, a group of food companies that includes the meatworks Affcos. ‘Sir’ Talley with his snarly mug and callous attitude is like a character out of a Dickens novel from grim nineteenth century England. Talley’s companies have been making headlines for their worksites being the scene of hundreds of accidents, some quite gruesome and several deadly.
As Herald columnist Dita De Boni summed up, “The pattern goes much further back than this week’s revelation that Talley’s had been forced to pay a worker $6000 for his poisoning in a meat chiller at the Malvern freezing works. It includes fines and convictions for two dead fishermen, carbon monoxide poisonings, and hooks in the head, amongst others. But even more than that are over 1200 claims to ACC made by employees of the Talley’s Group in the 2014 year alone.”
Peter Talley wants to not just prevent workers having power over health and safety, he and other opponents of the Bill want small-sized firms exempted. But these are the very firms that have the worst safety records.
More than just legislative change is needed. A revival of a culture of solidarity and union rights is key. A horrible accident this month highlights this. A worker in a meat processing plant was crushed by a hydraulic door, breaking his back, legs, ribs, and damaging his lungs, liver and stomach, leaving him in a coma. A fellow worker was close by but it was five minutes before he realized what had happened as he was listening to music on headphones.
If the Bill gets through parliament without being neutered it will be a step forward. However, workers will still need to assert their rights to be in charge of health and safety.