Health and Safety Reform Bill could signal increased workload for lawyers

by Mackenzie McCarty12 Mar 2014
The Government’s newly introduced Health and Safety Reform Bill could mean increased workloads for public and employment legal professionals, according to a leading employment lawyer.

Chen Palmer principal, Anthony Russell, tells NZ Lawyer that the proposed legislative changes put greater onus on directors and senior managers when it comes to workplace health and safety – and that could create more work for lawyers in the field.

“[In the Bill] there is no ability to say “oh, I didn’t know about that; that’s not my area of expertise”. The requirement now is for directors and senior managers to know about health and safety and take a proactive stance in regards to it,” he says. “Their liability will be based on that new standard, which will mean that they will need advice on how they comply with that standard - and also advice in case there is an allegation that they haven’t complied with the standard. So I think there will be some increased work around that area for employment lawyers.”

Russell says the proposed Bill is a necessary legislative initiative, something he says is proven by the fact that it’s maintained cross-party support in Parliament.

“It’s obviously come as a direct outcome of the Pike River disaster and the deficiencies found in health and safety legislation there... I’m pretty sure that the Bill’s going to go through. There might be some suggestions – I know that Labour’s talked about a corporate manslaughter provision. Andrew Little, the spokesperson for the Labour Party has talked about that, again in light of Pike River. But I don’t think they’ll have the numbers to get that amendment to the Bill passed,” says Russell.

When it comes to his own practice, Russell says clients have proven relatively accepting of the proposed changes, though some have signalled levels of reluctance.

“I think [clients] realise that the writing’s on the wall and that this is going to be passed. And I think there’s a general acceptance that, even amongst employers, there is a need for a change in light of what happened in Pike River. So I don’t think there’d be much resistance from most, though in some quarters there will be a reluctant acceptance of it. But I don’t see a lot of push-back against the legislation.”

Key changes in the Health and Safety Reform Bill include:
  • More onus and legal requirements on managers and company directors to manage risks and keep their workers safe; 
  • Greater worker participation required so workers are more involved in health and safety in their workplace;
  • Stronger penalties, enforcement tools, graduated offence categories and court powers established and
  • Amendments to the WorkSafe New Zealand Act 2013, Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996, Accident Compensation Act 2001, Employment Relations Act 2000 and other Acts
The Health and Safety Bill will create the new Health and Safety at Work Act, replacing the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992.  It is expected to pass into law by the end of the year and will come into force in April 2015.

The Bill will be supported by two phases of regulations, expected to be released for consultation later this year.