A wake-up call for workplace safety – NZ fatality rate is twice that of Australia

Given how close we are to our neighbours over the ditch, we compare ourselves to Australia in almost every aspect. From sports and culture to economics and lifestyle, we like to think we can keep up with our big brother and show them a thing or two. However, the stark difference in workplace safety and our fatality rate, in particular, is a wake-up call for everyone working in high-risk industries. 

On average, there are 73 work-related deaths in New Zealand each year. Relative to the number of people in employment, the NZ workplace fatality rate is double the Australian rate and hasn’t shifted in many years. The NZ rate is similar to those the UK experienced back in the 1980s, making it very clear there is significant room for improvement.  

The gap between New Zealand and Australia is consistent across most industries and occupations. Looking at just the construction industry, the NZ fatality rate is 4.41 workers in every 100,000 compared to 2.93 workers in every 100,000 in Australia

Our workplace injury rates tell a similar story. NZ injury rates reported by ACC have improved over time, however, the Australian rate is 25% lower, and the UK is 45% lower. 

Behind these statistics are real people, with families and friends dealing with unimaginable loss when their loved one never returns from work. There is also a very real economic impact, with New Zealand’s workplace accidents and deaths costing the country $4.4 billion. If we could improve our workplace safety performance to match that of Australia, we would reduce costs by nearly $1 billion each year.  With 137,939 people out of work in 2022 and receiving weekly compensation from ACC, our high injury rate is also contributing to labour shortage issues. 

Why do workplace fatalities happen at twice the rate in NZ?

The 2023 State of a Thriving Nation report says that experts have identified “several factors generate more heat in the system overseas.” For example, in both Australia and the UK, the regulatory environment sets clearer expectations and is firm with enforcement. Australia also has more active trade unions and invests more in new technology. 

As a business owner or tradie on the tools, what should I focus on?

New Zealand’s workplace fatality statistics are a wake-up call for everyone working in the construction industry, an area that accounts for a large proportion of all fatalities. 

The best way to reduce fatalities is to Plan, Do, Check, Act.  Focus on the risks on-site which could cause a fatality or a life-altering injury. They are the ones that you want to manage first. Remember, managing risks is more than just using PPE or putting in an administration control. 

Looking at NZ construction industry safety statistics over the last five years, the areas that contribute to the greatest number of fatalities are;

  • Falls Down a Level (46%)
  • Slips, Trips and Stumbles on the same level (15%)
  • Vehicle Incidents (23%)
  • Hit by Moving Object (8%)
  • Trapped between Moving and Stationary Object (8%)

These are areas of greatest risk and therefore the areas that should be monitored and reviewed most closely.

The construction industry has additional H&S challenges arising from the volume of contractors and subcontractors from various specialties that must work together on a single site or project. This was reflected in our 2023 member survey where just 66% of building companies agreed that “workers on site (including contractors) are reliable at following H&S procedures and managing/recording H&S where applicable.”

When it comes to how to improve safety engagement with workers and contractors on site, Evette McClure, H&S Advisory & Customer Support Lead at HazardCo says, “When you break it down, ensuring safety on-site can actually be quite simple – it all comes down to communication. Communication is at the heart of all important safety procedures, and it’s the foundation of effective safety management.”

“Good communication creates a culture where everyone is aware and works together. It makes it easier for people to raise concerns and find solutions. In the end, having a culture of strong communication is vital for preventing incidents and keeping everyone safe on the construction site. Just remember, as with anything, it all starts with you.  You need to lead by example, start conversations, work together, and create an environment where everyone feels encouraged to participate. You need to be the one to make the change, because if you don’t, nobody else will.”

Although the comparison of workplace safety between New Zealand and Australia is concerning, it shows us that we can and should work to improve our workplace fatality statistics.

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