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Improving Workplace Health & Safety Through Strong Leadership

June 2, 2015

New Zealand leads the world in many things but, unfortunately workplace health and safety (OH&S) is not one of them. 

In a bid to address the country's poor workplace safety history, legislation has been introduced by the government. Together with this, health and safety should be seen as an investment in good business practice, alongside improved productivity, reliability and an engaged workforce.

The Health and Safety at WorkAct has come into force and has a number of key goals including:

  • Protecting workers and others by eliminating or minimising risk.
  • Providing for fair effective workplace representation, consultation, co-operation and resolution of issues.
  • Promoting advice, information, education and training on OH&S.
  • Securing compliance with the Act.
  • Scrutinising and reviewing actions taken by duty holders under the Act.
  • Ensuring there is a framework of continuous improvement to achieve higher standards of OH&S.


The Act also makes explicit the duties of company Directors. Directors will be required, by law, to be pro-active on health and safety issues. Every director will be expected to understand the key risks with their organisations and assure themselves that these risks are being managed effectively. Directors will need to provide policy that sets the direction for health and safety management. Active commitment and consistent behaviours must be demonstrated and every director needs to recognise that OH&S, as it can no longer be considered as a compliance cost or as something to be delegated. Leaders need to take responsibility for building the culture within the business.

 Your business culture today is the result of what has been valued by you in the business in the past few years, it is “the way we do things around here”. Some organisations preach safety, good reporting and improvement but in fact practice fault finding, criticism and blame.

Cultural change takes leadership, a plan, and perseverance. It will require a change in understanding, mind-set and behaviour across the whole organisation and this is what is needed to meet the new OH&S legislative standards.

What does a strong health and safety culture look like?

  1. Everybody knows that if a job can't be done safely, it is not done at all.
  2. There is open and honest communication across the organisation.
  3. Incidents are investigated without fear of blame or retribution.
  4. The organisation learns from incidents and near misses and makes sure they don’t happen again.
  5. There is mutual respect between workers and managers.
  6. There is emphasis on the use and continuous improvement of systems.
  7. OH&S is adequately resourced with sufficient people, equipment and time.
  8. People who break the rules or condone rule breaking by others are held accountable.


The benefits of a strong safety culture are many. They include better relationships between management and staff, more engagement and productive workers, fewer accidents/injuries and lost time, generally safer behaviours among workers and improved well-being and job satisfaction for all staff. A positive and robust OH&S culture that begins at the Board table and spreads throughout the organisation is good for business.

The governments target is to reduce workplace fatality and serious injury rates by 25% by 2020. WorkSafe New Zealand is the new regulator for work-place health and safety established to achieve this target. Already this year prosecutions have been significant. Some cases include:

  • Construction company fined $33,000 and ordered to pay $10,000 reparation after a sub-contractor’s employee fell from a 5m height.
  • Fertiliser company fined $33,000 with $5000 reparation after an employee lost a finger when his hand was pulled into a packing plant machine.
  • Roofing company’s lack of appropriate scaffolding puts workers at real and unacceptable risk – no accident occurred – fined $15,000.
  • Freight company fined $52,000 over rock crusher accident - %15,000 reparation
  • Forestry company fined $80,000 after a worker was hit by a log - $40,000 reparation
  • Maintenance Service Company fined $31,400 + $50,000 reparation after a worker’s right leg had to be amputated below the knee.

These examples highlight the far higher level of inspection and prosecution.

How much risk is your business exposed to with your current Health and Safety Culture?

Some questions to ask:

  1. Are all employees committed to their own safe practises, and will they report unsafe acts?
  2. Is there clear engagement and participation in safety?
  3. Do you have a strong and honest reporting culture?
  4. What behaviours are really valued – quick unsafe practice or safe practice that takes longer?
  5. What do your staff perceive are the priorities in the business, safety first or profit first?


Putting staff through OH&S Training or merely having a good OH&S system will not be enough. According to Gordon MacDonald CEO WorkSafe NZ “Health and safety has to be done with employees not done to them”.

What are the important steps from here?

Right now, all Managers and team members need to understand what is expected and what impact the Health and Safety at Work Act, and WorkSafe NZ will have on them and the business. Next steps could include the following:

  1. Review and assess the organisation’s current culture against your commitment to OH&S.
  2. Establish clear and transparent business-wide OH&S KPIs.
  3. Build on motivated leaders who reinforce a strong OH&S culture that delivers against KPIs.
  4. Build mutual and individual accountability across the business for health and safety.
  5. Fully integrate OH&S management systems into the business.
  6. Develop a robust risk and hazard management process.
  7. Ensure safety improvements are considered and actioned on a regular basis.
  8. Ensure all incidents are investigated rigorously and required actions taken.
  9. Ensure the right people with authority and motivation to manage OH&S are in place with the required resource to deliver.

Rather than thinking “can I afford to make these changes?” the question really is, “can I afford not to?” Strengthening the health and safety culture through strong leadership in your business is vital. 

Add a comment1 Comment

Reply Frank Taylor | March 21st, 2016 at 8:00pm
This is very interesting to read, Leaders are people who influence the attitudes and behaviors of others sometimes through their formal role and sometimes by their personal influence. A positive leadership and management style can always improve an organisation’s work health and safety performance.

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