There has been recent media coverage detailing the concerns of company directors around their responsibilities under the incoming Health and Safety at Work Act 2015. Peter Jackson has resigned as a director from Weta Workshop citing concerns over personal liability for breaches of health and safety legislation. School principals have opened up to the media stating they are considering cancelling outdoor activities, and are spending thousands of dollars to audit their health and safety procedures.
In our view these actions of company directors and school principals are based on unfounded fears and are unnecessary.
Directors of companies will be considered ‘officers’ under the new law and will have additional responsibilities compared to the current legislation. Principals of schools and boards of trustees will also be considered ‘officers’, and will share the same responsibilities. These extra responsibilities include having knowledge of health and safety matters, understanding the nature of the risks in the operation, ensuring there are resources and processes in place to minimise risk, and making sure those processes are actually used.
We don’t think the new law requires Peter Jackson to become an expert in the movie set manufacturing of Weta Workshops and the health and safety issues this presents. However if he is to be a director, it does require him to acquire some knowledge about what happens in Weta Workshops and check that health and safety issues are being dealt with appropriately. Peter Jackson is a smart guy, so I believe he could easily acquire the knowledge to perform his duties under the new law.
There is a valid argument for claiming the new law blurs the line between governance and operational management. But directors already have substantial duties in terms of financial management of companies. You could argue that if it’s acceptable for directors to take responsibility for a company’s money, then shouldn’t they also take some responsibility for the safety of the company’s workers.
School principals will also have these duties. But I question why schools are spending large sums of money on private consultants to review their health and safety procedures when WorkSafe NZ and the Ministry of Education are already providing principals with adequate information for free.
School activities are generally low risk in terms of health and safety, and for most schools their existing policies and procedures will be adequate for the new law. What is important is that principals ensure teachers actually follow the procedures that are put in place for camps, playgrounds, and other outdoor activities.
School staff and principals are already liable for prosecution for workplace health and safety breaches under the current law. The new law will simply help clarify their responsibilities.
Boards of Trustees
School boards of trustees will also have to perform the ‘officer’s’ duties under the new law. Importantly, to ensure people are not unduly deterred from stepping into school board of trustee positions, trustees will not be liable for breaches of these duties.
Officers will have extra duties under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015. However we don’t think it means that directors and principals need to become experts on all the day-to-day activities of the operations they oversee. The new law does specify that they have some knowledge of health and safety, and ensure appropriate processes are in place.