Survey identifies simmering issues

10 July, 2015  |  News

A major nationwide survey examining health and safety practices and beliefs across high risk industries has identified significant differences in approach between sectors, a strong tendency to under-estimate workplace risk, and inconsistencies in the way workers and employers from the same industry groups perceive performance.

The survey, Health and Safety Attitudes and Behaviours in the New Zealand Workforce was commissioned by WorkSafe NZ in partnership with Maritime NZ, as the first of three annual studies intended to identify areas for regulator intervention, and measure the effectiveness of initiatives over time.

Between July and September last year research company Nielsen surveyed 3700 workers and 1900 employers, predominantly from the agriculture, forestry, fishing, construction and manufacturing sectors, along with a sample selected at random from other industries to provide a comparison. The issues covered by the questions were determined during an earlier qualitative research project.

Although the results were encouraging in some respects, showing relatively strong commitment to health and safety within the high-risk sectors, at both business and worker level, there is evidence that WorkSafe’s messages are not always getting through.

Only the forest industry – subject of a recent OHS investigation and an awareness campaign – seemed to have a realistic understanding of the hazardous nature of its work. Eighty-five percent of forest workers and 81% of their employers said the injury risk in their industry was higher than that in other groups.

In the manufacturing sector, however, only 39% of workers and 31% of employers identified their industry as more at risk, while agriculture had figures of 50% and 56%, commercial fishing 51% and 43% , and construction 62% and 52%.

Forestry workers and employers were also more likely to believe that someone from their business could suffer a serious injury within the next year, with 27% of workers and 8% of bosses rating this as at least a moderate risk. More than a quarter of manufacturing workers also identified this risk, but only 4% of their employers agreed that a serious injury could occur.

Farm workers were less likely to believe there would be an injury in their workplace than were those from the comparison group of lower risk industries. While 12% from the comparison group regarded the injury risk as at least moderate, only 11% of farm workers agreed.

In every case employers were significantly less likely than workers to accept that a serious injury was a possibility, while young workers, Maori, those employed by large organisations and those who worked with migrants were more likely to acknowledge injury risk.

Across the board 94% of workers said they felt safe, or very safe, at work, with agricultural workers reporting the highest levels of perceived safety – 57% feeling very safe, and 40% safe.

Manufacturing had the most anxious workers, with only 36% feeling very safe, and 9% feeling unsafe or very unsafe.

An average of 22% of workers – ranging from 36% in the forest industry to 19% in commercial fishing – reported having suffered a serious harm injury in the preceding year.

Workers across all the high-risk sectors believed they had the necessary knowledge and skills to keep themselves safe on the job however, with more than 90% from each group expressing confidence in this area, compared to 88% for the comparison sample. In the fishing and forest industries 97% were confident of their own skills.

There was less certainty, however, about preventing long-term health issues, with between 76% (manufacturing) and 84% (forestry) expressing confidence in this area. Despite the high percentage claiming to understand safe work, there were some worryingly high percentages admitting that risky behaviour occurred in their workplaces, at least occasionally.

More than half the workers in all five high-risk sectors knew of instances where people had worked when ill or injured, or when overtired, and 11 other risky behaviours were also acknowledged as things that had occurred in between 16 and 43% of workplaces.

Workers from large businesses reported the most types of risky behaviour, while those in Gisborne, of Maori ethnicity, from the manufacturing sector, or working with migrants also reported higher than average levels. The highest rates of risky behaviour, however, were reported by those who had experienced a serious harm injury, with more than half of these workers saying they knew deliberate short cuts had been taken on occasions.

Employers consistently viewed the incidence of these behaviours as much lower, with 38% identifying careless mistakes as the most common risk behaviour in their workplace.

At first glance the results around positive indicators, such as PPE use and machine guarding, seem encouraging, with more than 90% of employers and more than 85% of workers stating that these safety measures are used in their workplaces. The survey report cautions, however, that while, for instance, 89% of workers use PPE correctly, only 45% do so all the time.

“It is questionable whether ‘most of the time’ is good enough for these actions,” it says, noting that just 50% of workers and 64% of employers always took action straight away when a potential hazard was identified.

The survey also looks at the communication of OHS messages in workplaces, near miss and serious harm reporting, how workers and employers access OHS information, and awareness and understanding of WorkSafe’s role.

In summary the report found that workers and employers don’t accord health and safety enough priority and do not always carry through their stated belief that they have a high level of personal responsibility for OHS. It also criticised what it called the “it won’t happen to me” mentality.

Work on a second survey is to begin this month.

Both a summary report and industry-specific ones are available on the WorkSafe website

Alert24 13/7/15 -