The Evolving Work Environment in New Zealand: Implications for Occupational Health and Safety - NOHSAC Technical Report 10
2.1 Nature of work
The working environment in New Zealand, in keeping with the experience of most western industrial societies, has undergone massive change in the past two decades. This change has been most pronounced in growth of the contingent workforce, but there has also been dramatic change in the demographics of the labour market, particularly the growth in labour market participation by women. Underlying these changes have been associated structural changes in modes of production in many industries, with the emergence of new technologies, the outsourcing of elements of production, reduction in the size of units of production and the emergence of new forms of work organisation. An additional consideration, less pronounced in an immediate sense but of great significance into the future, is the ageing of the population. The context for all these dramatic changes has been the shift to globalised economic relationships.
These seismic shifts have occurred relatively shortly after the transition to performance-based regulation of occupational health and safety.[i] Many of the settings upon which that transition was predicated (such as high union density and centrality of nation state controls) have declined in presence and influence. The shift from more prescriptive regulation of occupational health and safety had not been completed by the time the world of OHS became much more complicated by these changes in the workplace.
It is important to note that enforcement of OHS regulation, whether prescriptive or performance-based in character, has always been complicated by the fact of its ‘organisational context’. It is, in large part, this argument that has supported the transition to performance-based regulatory frameworks and associated preventative programmes. Hopkins argues that OHS regulation is not well served by a strict compliance approach since the risk of “unintended and undesired outcome(s)”, i.e., accidents, in the workplace is accepted. The point of OHS regulation is not to prohibit the harm that results (prescriptive regulation), but rather to encourage the effective management of the risk that may lead to harm (performance-based).
The efforts of Andrew Hopkins and many others, including key members of the research team, have emphasised the centrality of the workplace ‘culture’ as a key determinant of OHS outcomes in this changing environment. Key aspects of this debate are the levels and effectiveness of workplace consultation and commitment of management at all levels to the achievement of positive outcomes. Related matters include the importance of support for workforce representation and consultation[3,4] and the tendency for outsourcing of functions, in some workplaces to include the effective delegation of managerial responsibilities for OHS by principal employers.
A key area for inquiry is the extent to which changes to job structures and working arrangements have translated into changes in workplace culture.
Sensitivity is also required to the underlying demographic changes and their impact. The ageing of the workforce and its gender constitution become major issues. The existing worldwide OHS ‘blind spot’ of long latency disease becomes particularly important in this regard. The expectation of increased longevity of the workforce may not be realised if suspicions that life-long exposures to chemicals may lead to increased incidence of occupational disease are realised. This concern is compounded by evidence of increased working hours – exposure standards to recognised (as distinct from yet to be established) hazardous substances are most often based on eight hour working day exposures. The risks associated with an extended life-long exposure at increased hours per day are effectively uncontrolled on current settings. It is abundantly clear from NOHSAC’s previous publications that there is an acute awareness of this vulnerability. An important recent contribution to the debate surrounding adequacy of existing workplace exposure surveillance arrangements has been made by the joint report commissioned by the Office of the Australian Safety and Compensation Council and the New Zealand National Occupational Health and Safety Advisory Committee.
Central to all efforts is an increased understanding of the methods by which OHS harm prevention programmes can be more closely aligned with the existing and emerging workplace culture. Emphasis upon issues of workplace culture become particularly important if available evidence is to be the basis for policy directions into the future. There is clear evidence that the major workplace changes under review were initially driven by a desire by employers to ‘spread the risk’ (and associated costs) of engaging directly employed workforces on conventional (now, perhaps, historical) terms. While it remains unclear, and probably irrelevant to the NOHSAC remit, whether these types of identified workplace changes were deliberately intended to escape OHS specific obligations, it is clear that confusion has been created. It is the confusion over the cascading duties and obligations under modern OHS arrangements that becomes important in policy terms.
The complexity around the regulation and enforcement of occupational health and safety is both philosophical and practical in its nature and its impacts. This report will focus on the practical issues and their interface with the changes that have occurred and trends for the future in New Zealand’s workforce and workplaces.