Health and safety certification chaos

6By Jeremy Sole
CEO, NZ Contractors' Federation

Productivity is a word that is heard a lot around Wellington these days. The Government’s infrastructure initiatives are all about providing the facilities that will remove constraints and lift the productivity of private and public sectors alike. There is significant work going on in the health sector to lift its productivity, and Dr Brash is tasked with finding ways for New Zealanders to lift the country’s productivity so we can all enjoy incomes equivalent to our mates across the Tasman. Actually, I spoke to Don recently and wished him well and told him I was very much looking forward to his success in this endeavour.

So the building and construction industry productivity taskforce was not alone in its deliberations with regard to sector productivity improvement. The taskforce came up with a whopping 43 recommendations, which included many of the initiatives we at the federation had already flagged or were already working on. Areas such as government sector procurement, up-skilling the workforce, changing perceptions to make the industry more attractive and sexy than it is currently perceived to be for school leavers and job seekers.

One of the areas of opportunity the taskforce seems to have missed is the plethora of mismatched health and safety delivery and management systems and qualifications in the industry.  I was about to stand up and make this observation at the taskforce forum when the CEO of Certified Builders stood up and took the words right out of my mouth – and delivered them more eloquently as well I must say.

Over the past few months I have met and spoken with a number of people from different parts of the construction industry, from builders to civil contractors, to training providers and Department of Labour, a Cabinet Minister and ACC, to talk about the provision of health and safety training and certification in the industry.

I’ve heard stories of training providers who want to totally control sectors of the industry by attempting to have their clients shut out other businesses who have used different providers – and it almost worked in some areas. I’ve spoken to some of New Zealand’s largest and most successful civil construction companies who have submitted non-conforming tenders because the name on their health and safety cards was different to their client’s ones, and I’ve spoken to the small guys who just want to be able to walk into a site as subcontractors without having to pay for a multitude of different qualifications which are more or less different brands of the same thing.

If we look to first aid certification as an example – no matter where you are or what your business around the country, when someone flashes their first aid certification in front of you, you know what training the person has had and what you can expect from them. Not so with health and safety, as there is an overabundance of different certification processes and brands and no way to map or compare them against each other.

There is a general acceptance that health and safety practices in New Zealand have come a long way over the past years, and there is an equally general acceptance (100 percent in the areas I have investigated) that it is time for a rethink and a press of the reset button in this area. 

One of the primary indicators that benefits from the health and safety regimes to date have reached a plateau, is that ACC figures show insignificant differences in accident rates between firms using the big health and safety qualifications and those who don’t. We’ve come a long way since an Italian construction worker was surprised and pleased that New Zealand’s Tongariro tunneling project was a 1.25 job when he was used to 2.5 regimes overseas. What’s 1.25 you ask? It was the ‘acceptable’ ratio of deaths per mile to get the job done!

The message has been pure and consistent no matter where I went and who I have spoken to – there is a need for change. So our approach has been to pull all the interested parties together with a view to laying all the cards on the table for the industry to manage health and safety in a way that eliminates the productivity gobbling scenarios mentioned above.

For maximum benefit, the industry needs to retain the elements available today but have them working in an industry driven coherent delivery framework.

Many of the demarcations in health and safety brands in the construction industry are technically redundant. An example I often use is the current construction site for the new Manukau Harbour Crossing (MHX).  Site workers are among cranes with swinging loads, heavy machinery, working at height, working over water, working with electrical equipment, welders,  lifting materials, working beneath, over and around other people. These and many other health and safety issues are not site specific, they are industry wide. Then on top of that there will be specific issues particular to various parts of the industry – one which springs to mind easily is working with high temperature bitumen equipment.

Given the way productivity is measured and how that process captures waste, solving this particular issue will have tremendous impact on individuals and the sector as a whole. It will more easily enable firms to bid across different parts of the sector and work together, it will reduce duplication in training and it will allow greater portability of certification and qualifications. This last benefit will work well for skilled people moving around as workflows vary and will

potentially enable the industry to retain a greater number of skilled staff as the work fluctuates in different parts of the industry.  

Contractor Vol.33  No.8  September 2009
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