Time to escape NZ’s health and safety mad house

Dr Oliver Hartwich
The Australian
19 June, 2024

The other day, I popped into a café in Wellington for my usual flat white. As I waited for my coffee, I noticed a selection of nut packages on display. So far, so unremarkable – until I read the attached label: “Warning: May contain nuts.”

I could not help but chuckle at the absurdity. Of course, a package of nuts may contain nuts. Let me be clear: for those with nut allergies, such warnings are entirely appropriate and necessary. But on a packet of nuts? It seemed to encapsulate a world where rational thinking has been regulated into oblivion.

Now, I realise this particular example has little to do with workplace health and safety – the main focus of this article. But it is a telling illustration of a broader culture of regulatory overreach that has seeped into many aspects of our lives, often with unintended consequences. And nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of workplace health and safety.

Over the past few decades, we have seen an exponential growth in rules designed to minimise risk in the workplace. The intentions are usually noble – no one wants to see workers injured or killed on the job. But even the most well-meaning regulations can sometimes tie themselves in knots, creating a labyrinth of red tape that stifles productivity, innovation and practical judgment.

A case in point: a friend recently shared with me his experience from a couple of years ago of having a single light bulb changed in his apartment. It was a routine job that required a ladder to reach the fitting. But what should have been a simple task came with an astonishing amount of regulatory baggage.

The electrician arrived armed not just with a new bulb but with a dizzying array of paperwork. There was a 9-page Job Safety and Environmental Analysis Form, a 2-page COVID-19 Safety Plan (remember those?) and an Electrical Safety Certificate. The compliance costs were eye-watering – the certificate alone added 10% to the bill, while the time spent filling out the other forms was quietly folded into the labour charge.

As my friend put it, “It’s just a bloody light bulb!”

He is right, of course. When the paperwork for changing a light bulb runs to a dozen pages, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the system has lost touch with reality.

This is why the New Zealand Government’s regulatory review of workplace safety rules, announced on Friday, is so important. Initiated by Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Brooke van Velden, the review will leave no stone unturned. It will examine whether existing health and safety requirements are too strict or too ambiguous for businesses to comply with. It will look at instances where work safety laws overlap with other regulatory regimes, creating compliance burdens that leave employers scratching their heads.

Crucially, the review will assess whether the consequences for non-compliance are disproportionate or unreasonable. This is a key point, because when punishments do not fit the crime, it can foster a culture of fear and risk aversion that stymies growth and innovation.

The terms of reference for the review point to an enlightened approach. They emphasise that health and safety actions “should be appropriate and meaningful, rather than just another tick-box exercise.” They acknowledge that the threshold for work-related risk management may currently be set too high, burdening businesses with unreasonable obligations that defy logic.

This language will be music to the ears of the long-suffering New Zealand business community, which for years has pleaded for a more proportionate, risk-based approach to workplace safety rules. It is a community all too familiar with the reams of paperwork, the armies of consultants, and the forests of warning signs required to achieve even nominal compliance with the current regime.

Tales of excessive regulation are not hard to find. A 2015 report by The New Zealand Initiative, the think tank I lead, highlighted the case of a residential roof maintenance job that turned from a NZ$4,000 project into a NZ$6,000 one, thanks to the costs of complying with new safety regulations. Our report estimated that if half of New Zealand’s 1.8 million dwellings had such a roof job every 12 years, the annual cost burden on households could be as high as NZ$150 million.

Of course, not everyone is happy with this regulatory rethink. Some trade unions and activist groups have accused the Government of putting profits before people. They paint a dystopian picture of a future where worker safety is sacrificed on the altar of productivity, where every day is a re-run of the Hunger Games with hard hats.

But this is a false dichotomy. The choice is not between a safe workplace and a productive one. The reality is that smart, streamlined regulation can achieve both. By stripping away the regulatory deadwood, businesses can focus on what really matters: identifying and mitigating genuine risks, not ticking boxes on a form or wrapping their workers in cotton wool.

The benefits of a more rational approach to health and safety regulation could be profound. It could unshackle businesses to innovate and grow, boost productivity by reducing compliance costs, and restore a sense of personal responsibility in the workplace. What workers need is not a nanny state, but a regulatory framework that empowers them to manage risks intelligently, with rules grounded in pragmatism, not bureaucratic fantasy.

This is the opportunity the Government’s review presents. It is a chance to craft health and safety rules that work in the real world. If done right, it could show that it is possible to have a safe workplace without suffocating everyone in regulatory bubble wrap.

One may hope the review team approaches its task with a healthy dose of practicality and a willingness to prune the regulatory tree, even if it ruffles a few feathers.

And who knows? If they succeed, we may finally see a world where changing a lightbulb does not require reams of paperwork – a world where personal responsibility and common sense are worth more than a truckload of compliance costs.

Now that would be a health and safety reform worth toasting – perhaps with a nice flat white and a packet of nuts … and without any superfluous warning labels.

To read the full article in The Australian, click here.

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