Refusal: a practicable step

15 May, 2015  |  News


Refusing unsafe work is not just a right but a legal obligation on all workers, the deputy chair of the WorkSafe New Zealand board told a Workers’ Memorial Day event in Auckland last month.

Speaking at a one-day conference for OHS reps and union members organised to mark WMD, Ross Wilson said the right to refuse dangerous work had existed long before it was spelt out in the HSE Act, but with its inclusion in OHS legislation it became a legal requirement.

“It’s a right that’s always been there under common law,” he said. “What the HSE Act did was place an obligation on workers to refuse such work because they, like employers, must take all practicable steps to protect their own safety and that of others. What’s a more practicable step than refusing to undertake dangerous work? Tell your employers you’ll be breaching the law if you carry out dangerous work.”

Wilson, former president of the NZCTU, urged delegates to use their roles to press for improved worker safety, reminding them that the founding principles of modern OHS legislation, as set out in the Robens’ Report of the 1970s, called for “a three-legged stool”, with responsibility shared between governments, employers and unions.

New Zealand law had not adopted this model until 2002, when the HSE Act was amended to require worker participation, he said, but even then the Department of Labour of the time did little to resource or enforce the requirement.

“For workers to have real involvement in the processes around workplace health and safety you’ve got to have rights and protections, and an environment that ensures worker representatives are able to undertake their very responsible roles without fear of retribution.”

The soon-to-be enacted Health and Safety at Work Act offers the best opportunity in years to achieve effective worker participation, he said, although there is still uncertainty about how this right will be exercised.

“This is the one area of the legislation that employers have really focused on. All the corporates spent 90% of their submissions [on the draft bill] complaining about the powers that are being given to workers. It was a concerted attempt to weaken the workers’ leg of the stool, but I don’t think it has succeeded entirely – although we won’t know for sure until the end of May [when the select committee reports back to Parliament].”

Health and safety was a core responsibility for unions, Wilson said, noting that worker surveys consistently identified it as the number one thing they wanted unions to be involved with, while international studies show that unionised workplaces are safer.

“The problem we have – and not just in New Zealand – is that union coverage is low, particularly in the private sector. At WorkSafe we’re now scratching our heads about what we can do to empower, educate and support the building of effective worker participation [in sectors without a strong union presence.]

“Everybody at board level agrees that worker participation is essential to the effective function of the new system, but what are we going to do about it? We haven’t concluded that discussion, but it’s something we’re going to be working on over the next several months.”

In the meantime, he said, reps and delegates had a very important role to play.

“Pike River stirred things up, but these things pass. Memories fade, political commitments get forgotten, so it is you guys who have to remind politicians and the public that this is an ongoing issue for the protection of workers.

“Keep the pressure on us to do the job.”

 

Source: Alert24 25/5/15, www.safeguard.co.nz