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Peter Jackson resigns as Weta Workshop director - Health and Safety to blame

New Health and Safety legislation has prompted Sir Peter Jackson to resign as a director of Weta Workshop. The design studio founded in 1987 and made famous by the Lord of the Rings trilogy has won five Academy Awards and is now a tourist destination. As of 31 December 2015, Peter Jackson, along with fellow Oscar winner Jamie Selkirk, stepped down from being a director of the Miramar studio but both remain shareholders. Other directors, including Sir Richard Taylor, one of Weta Workshop’s founders, are staying put.

pjJackson and Selkirk both felt they were not adequately engaged with the company’s daily running and preferred not to risk personal liability under the new legislation. Weta Workshop senior communications manager Erik Hay confirmed that Jackson felt he was not involved enough and therefore decided to step out of the piece. He added that in a manufacturing business like Weta, it is especially important that the directors are hands on. 

The new Health and Safety Act is the first significant reform of health and safety law in more than 20 years and will see directors face personal liability for failure to take responsibility for health and safety. The changes come into effect on 4 April 2016 and it is intended to reduce New Zealand’s workplace toll of serious injuries and deaths by 25 per cent by 2020. Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Woodhouse promotes it as “a system that strikes the right balance between safe workplaces for workers and unnecessary red tape for businesses.”

Numerous New Zealand directors like Jackson are not involved with the day to day running of their company and it is important that such individuals realise the new position they are in and the choice they face between either becoming more intimately involved with the intricacies of their business, or altering their position in the company so that they avoid being in the line of fire if a health and safety issue were to occur. Industry experts have praised Jackson for the wisdom and foresight that is evident in the difficult decision he has made. 

The Act introduces the concept of a PCBU, meaning a ‘person conducting a business or undertaking’. The core duty of a PCBU is to ensure, so far as reasonably practicable, the health and safety of:

workers who work for the PCBU, 

workers whose activities are influenced or directed by the PCBU, and 

other persons, in relation to the work carried out by the PCBU. 

Another key concept is that of an ‘officer’ of a PCBU. An officer is any person occupying a position in relation to the business or undertaking that allows the person to exercise significant influence over the management of the business or undertaking (for example, a chief executive, a senior manager, director, partner). 

The Act creates three offence tiers relating to breaches of the health and safety duties.

The offences and the respective maximum penalties are: 

Reckless Conduct – fines up to $3 million (or $600,000 and/or up to five years’ imprisonment for individuals).

Failure to comply with a duty (with exposure to risk of death or serious injury/illness) – fines up to $1.5 million (or $300,000 for individuals).

Failure to comply with a duty (no exposure to death or serious injury/illness) – fines up to $500,000 (or $100,000 for individuals).

Although these changes may appear radical, the key theme is that those in charge of businesses simply need to focus on good governance in order to safeguard themselves. Minister Woodhouse has stated that the new legislation should not trigger a whole lot of director resignations and if such were to occur it would be an unnecessary overreaction. Directors will be hard pressed to bury their heads in the sand and plead ignorance, but with good governance in place there is no reason why they should not continue to sleep soundly at night.