My job: getting the costs of accidents down

PSA delegate James Dodwell is making a difference as a health and safety inspector for the Department of Labour.

DSCF2468What does your job involve?

Health and safety inspectors enforce the Health and Safety in Employment Act and educate on health and safety.  The role also involves the control of hazardous substances under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act.


Do you investigate workplace accidents?

A lot of the work is accident investigation but we’re also engaged in proactive work, hopefully preventing harm. Even when there’s been an accident we are very focused on making sure there isn’t another one.  We are interested in discovering whether something was an accident, whether it could have been anticipated, whether it could have been prevented. 


So accident prevention is a big part of your work?

Absolutely. We spend lots of time in the field doing workplace assessments and helping businesses with their compliance. There’s a big emphasis on targeting priority areas such as, construction, agriculture, forestry, manufacturing and fishing. We call them the “high five” – the top five industries in terms of severity and frequency of harm.

Another priority for us is machine guarding. There are a lot of dangerous machines out there in manufacturing and food processing that are unguarded. Our statistics show that accidents are occurring that not only could have been but should have been prevented. It costs the taxpayer a lot of money.


Is the role of health and safety rep useful in preventing accidents?

It’s absolutely a valuable role. The health and safety rep is somebody elected by the workers to represent their interests in health and safety. Sometimes employees are aware of things happening that may not have come to the employers’ attention. So it’s a way of providing employees with a voice. They can go to their health and safety rep with an issue and the rep can raise it with the employer.


What powers do the reps have?

If trained health and safety reps feel they are getting nowhere and the hazard is still significant, they can issue a hazard notice. It’s a mechanism for the rep to go straight to the Department of Labour. An inspector can then visit and either agree or disagree. Sometimes we say, sorry but your employer is right; sometimes we say, sorry but your employee is right.


You say you also monitor hazardous substances?

If someone wants to set up a petrol station, for example, the Act would have certain requirements to make sure there are no leaks but if there are, to make sure they don’t get out into the environment. It’s not only about safety, it’s also about protecting the environment. Eco systems can be delicate things; if businesses were permitted to discharge chemicals into the environment with no controls that could be incredibly damaging.


Do you enjoy your job?

I certainly do. Quite simply, you are making a difference for New Zealand by getting the costs of accidents down. Yes, there are probably going to be costs to a business in ensuring they are compliant with the Act but the costs to the taxpayer overall far outweigh them.  There are many long-term and unseen costs if someone is seriously harmed. It might impact on their ability to work so we have a less productive workforce. And of course there are the costs to the individual and their whole family.


What do you do in your spare time?

I have a beautiful daughter who is three-and-a-half and I spend a lot of time with her. I like to garden and I occasionally dabble in bonsai though I’ve probably killed more plants than turned into bonsai. I gather it takes a lifetime to learn and I’ve only been doing it a couple of years. Apart from that, I like to spend time with friends. We particularly like trying out new board games. There’s a part of us that never grows up.


This article is from the November 2011 issue of the PSA Journal. You can read back issues of the Journal by clicking here.