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Health and Safety Reform Bill

19 Dec 2014, 10:15 AM

While local government across the country supports many of the proposed changes under the Health and Safety Reform Bill there are some that we consider could adversely impact the involvement of our communities in local activities.  One such change would treat all volunteers as workers, making councils liable for local residents who choose to pitch in at events and projects such as beach clean-ups or when school groups plant trees in parks.

Local government is seeking changes to the Health and Safety Reform Bill for the benefit of communities, to allow councils to continue working with local residents on voluntary environmental, school and community projects.

The sense of engagement people receive from volunteering is important for residents to feel they are connected and contributing to their community.  Councils would no longer be able to effectively work with the vast numbers of people who do various volunteer activities if the proposed changes take place.

Volunteers play an important place in communities across all of New Zealand but these changes would threaten councils’ resources for events such as stream clean-ups, and their ability to support vital community centres where volunteers work.  Rural areas that have volunteers in libraries, museums and local information centres would be hit the hardest.

On average people in New Zealand spend 13 minutes per day in volunteering activities, the most in the OECD where the average is four minutes per day.  Changes proposed in the Health and Safety Reform Bill around volunteers would negatively impact communities by limiting councils’ abilities to provide the public with opportunities for civic engagement.

In contrast to Australia and the United Kingdom, it seems New Zealand legislation has failed to keep pace with international best practice and changes in work practices.

While most people would agree to a law that prevents workplace injuries and deaths, the proposed changes also have some worrying aspects that would affect our much loved kiwi lifestyle. 

The Bill also proposes new provisions for volunteers and that threatens the Kiwi way of doing things.  Up and down the country, volunteers plant trees, pick up rubbish, fundraise and deliver myriad other community projects.  Volunteers are also involved in events run by councils such as summer festivals. Obviously we want everyone to be safe but to treat these people as employees will see their expertise side-lined.  Not only will community spirit be quashed but some councils will choose not to run projects which could be made possible by volunteers.

Another issue is that the new legislation considers a public place such as a park or civic square to be a workplace with the council responsible for the health and safety of all those using it.  This includes civic or public places that are accessible to the public even when council workers are not present. We have asked that the liability for health and safety risks posed by workplaces is amended to exclude situations where their use is not actually capable of being regulated by the council.  Otherwise councils may have to consider closing off some public spaces.

We agree that every effort should be made to ensure no injuries or accidents happen in the workplace. 

No legislation can, however, make life totally safe.  We all must still have personal responsibility and the sector considers the correct balance between the imposition of a duty and the potential to incur liability for volunteers is already achieved under the current Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992.

Local government supports these changes generally, and liability would be tightened where needed, but in the case of volunteers we consider the current approach provides the right balance.