This is a previously unpublished article that was submitted to news organisations.
In April the Health and Safety at Work Act will come into effect and it will be the first major change to workplace safety legislation in over twenty years. If we can use the number of fatalities as a proxy measurement for workplace safety overall we can look at some of the available data to see what effect the new law may have. Based on comparisons with other countries, a very difficult exercise for various reasons, we are doing slightly worse than some of the EU countries but much better than the litigious United States.
At present there are about 50 workplace fatalities per year, and according to data from 2009 the rate was about five deaths per 100,000 employees per year. Putting it another way it will take workers 20,000 years on the job before they have the statistical chance of being killed. Being a statistic they would of course have just as much chance of getting killed on the first day on the job as they would after working for 20,000 years.
In the period from 1993 to 2009 the average number of workplace fatalities did not actually change very much. The Health and Safety in Employment Act passed into law in 1993 but it had no effect on the recorded workplace fatalities. Also, over the 1993 to 2009 period there had been an absolutely huge change in workplace health and safety culture and policy. This also had no obvious effect. A similar situation happened when bicycle helmets became mandatory. Even though there was a huge uptake in the use of bicycle helmets there was no corresponding stepwise reduction in head injuries due to cycle accidents.
So are we seeing the long tail of the law of diminishing returns on the number of workplace fatalities? If this is the case then no matter how much policy is put in place there will be no effect on the fatalities. One reason why there will always be fatalities is the concept of risk compensation, where we will always aim for the same level of risk. This means that is does not matter how many health and safety procedures are implemented workers will always take risks with some risks leading to fatalities.
Another thing to consider is the effect of what may be onerous health and safety compliance on the cost of doing business in New Zealand. While larger companies can absorb an increase in compliance costs small businesses, on which the New Zealand economy is built, will feel the financial pinch. Businesses that are only marginally profitable will shut down. All else being equal, the work carried out by these businesses, which may need to be done in some cases and in all cases would be a contribution to the New Zealand economy, will shift to a country with less restrictive health and safety policies.
If any work currently done in New Zealand is forced to shift off shore to a country with less strict health and safety policies we should consider the ethics of this from a global perspective. Is it really ethical to allow some of the more dangerous industries to move off shore where foreign workers are killed instead of New Zealanders? Based on what has already happened with sourcing cheap labour, cheap recycling, and cheap waste disposal this is a likely scenario. So it the global workplace fatality rate remains the same would anything have been achieved with the new law?
The best piece of health and safety equipment, which some either choose not to or cannot use correctly, is the grey matter between our ears. And so how do we legislate for the use of our brain?