By the 1980s, workplace health and safety was covered by a large number of very prescriptive industry-specific acts and regulations overseen by various government agencies. The Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 brought all workplaces and workers under one act that was primarily administered by the Department of Labour’s Occupational Safety and Health unit. Employers had to take all practicable steps to safeguard workers under a regime that allowed for a high degree of self-management. The Department of Labour could take employers to court for breaches of the act.
The Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act 1996 set special requirements for handling explosive, toxic or other dangerous materials at work.
In 2010 a methane gas explosion killed 29 workers in the Pike River coal mine on the West Coast. The tragedy exposed major shortcomings in the country’s health and safety regime. The Department of Labour had only two mining inspectors, so mines could not be rigorously checked – Pike River’s health and safety systems were wrongly assumed to be legally compliant. The Pike River Royal Commission (2012) and the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety (2013) both recommended a major overhaul of the law and regulatory agencies.
A stand-alone regulator, WorkSafe New Zealand, was created in 2013. This organisation assumed the health and safety responsibilities of the Department of Labour and its successor, the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment. The Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 replaced the 1992 act. Businesses in high-risk sectors and those in low-risk sectors with more than 20 workers now had to have health and safety representatives and committees if workers requested them. Penalties for non-compliance were increased.
Travelling for work
In 2015, WorkSafe New Zealand was the main workplace health and safety regulator, but transport agencies also had responsibilities in this area. Maritime New Zealand regulated work on ships while the Civil Aviation Authority was responsible for aviation. The New Zealand Transport Agency and the Police had roles in land transport workplaces.
One cause of work-related illness and death identified in the late 20th century was asbestos poisoning. Asbestos was widely used in New Zealand as a building and insulation material until its use was banned in 1991. People exposed to asbestos do not usually suffer ill effects for at least 20 years, and this time lag helped to conceal the risks of using the material.
In the 2010s office workers greatly outnumbered people in tough, dangerous physical work – but they were afflicted by injuries such as occupational over-use syndrome (OOS). Some occupations, such as farmers, fishers and truck drivers, were likely to work long hours and outside normal working hours, increasing their risk of workplace accidents. Workplaces were far safer than they had been, but workers continued to be killed, injured and infected with disease while doing their jobs. In 2013 the Independent Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety found that New Zealand had a high rate of workplace deaths compared to other OECD countries. There were 68 workplace-related fatalities in 2020, and 65 in 2021.