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Health and Safety Act ends the age of 'sleeping directors'

30 March 2016

Internationally respected Wellington film director, Sir Peter Jackson, resigned as a director of Weta Workshop as a result of the government's new health and safety legislation.

Jackson was concerned that the new law would require him to be more involved on a daily basis, or risk liability under the new Act. He therefore decided to resign. With the incoming Health and Safety laws the age of the 'sleeping director' is truly at an end.

On April 4 the Health and Safety at Work Act comes into force.

New Zealand has a relatively poor record for workplace accidents, particularly within industries such as manufacturing and construction.

The Pike River mining disaster in November 2010 and the Canterbury Earthquakes of September 2010 and February 2011 acted as a wake-up call for the country.

Anyone who has followed the Pike River disaster closely would realise the need for a huge change in how we address the health and safety of those around us.

Many readers will be involved in organisations that have planned for next Monday's law change. Many will also have done nothing to prepare.

It is time for everyone to take health and safety seriously. Firstly, because as decent humans we should care about the safety of others, and secondly, because the landmark shift in health and safety law has now arrived.

The first significant change to the New Zealand health and safety scheme happened over 2 years ago with the establishment of WorkSafe New Zealand which is a standalone government agency.

Its main objective is promoting and contributing to securing the health and safety of workers in workplaces. It achieves this by encouraging a cooperative approach to workplace health and safety and providing advice, information, and education all.

It is also responsible for enforcing health and safety rules, and prosecuting those who do not comply.

The other key mechanism of change is the new Act which brings significant reforms to the legal requirements around health and safety.

The new regime creates obligations for "persons conducting a business or undertaking" (PCBU). The term PCBU will capture various duty holders including contractors, principals, or other persons in control of a place of work.

Such people have the primary obligation of ensuring the health and safety those affected by their enterprise and there will be a positive duty on those in senior management roles, including company directors like Peter Jackson.

They must exercise due diligence to ensure the PCBU complies with the Act.

The punitive measures in the new Act introduce a tiered, more stringent penalty regime, including various additional powers such as the making of an adverse publicity order.

If a person breaches their duties under the new Act this may, at worst, attract penalties of up to 5 years imprisonment and a fine of up to $3 million.

Lesser offences and penalties exist. Now penalties reflect the seriousness of the offending. This will play a key role in the future.

Employers have important responsibilities under the legislation and it is important that they familiarise themselves with such duties. Workers also have the ability to play a key role in helping create a safe workplace.

Readers who have not prepared for the new laws should start now. Do not feel overwhelmed by the potential magnitude of the task.

A good place to start is WorkSafe New Zealand's website as they have a helpful introduction to the new law.

Many industry associations are providing guidance for their members. Seminars are being run throughout New Zealand and law firm websites and newsletters often also provide helpful information. Some firms are also running seminars about the new laws for their clients.

There is an abundance of assistance available and I would strongly urge you to commence the journey of learning more about your rights and obligations under the new Act.

We all care about the health and safety of our fellow men and women and this new legislation provides a well thought out pathway to responsibly progress to safer workplaces.

Cullen - The Employment Law Firm was one of the first eleven law firms in New Zealand approved to provide employment law services to Government and the public sector.

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