When workers never come home – why safety standards are no joke


Wayne ButsonThis quarter’s Rail and Maritime Transport Union magazine The Transport Worker has a special focus on the Union’s health and safety concerns within KiwiRail.

A factual report on an incident in the Kaimai Tunnel sets the tone. Two groups of contractors, undertaking track work, were overcome by the fumes they were creating and had to evacuate the tunnel in a state of distress. There had been a total lack of compliance with KiwRail’s own internal requirements for tunnel entry and work nor were they supervised by KiwiRail staff – another safety requirement. One of the groups was undertaking core rail work – a clear demonstration of the validity of the Union’s statements of fact that rail maintenance tasks remain unchanged following staffing cuts. Last year cuts were made to the infrastructure group affecting permanent rail workers and the RMTU predicted that there would be increased contracting out and consequently more risks to safety on the network.

There are other warning signs. In our view KiwiRail’s drive for commercial profitability and on-time performance is encouraging workers to cut corners and take risks. What else can you say when the company erects clocks in its workplace with stickers on their faces stating “We live and die by the clock”. Additionally, they published a league table of on-time performance in the company newsletter exhorting staff to do better.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not against improved on-time performance and growing customer satisfaction rather, it is about the messaging and getting the balance right. It is outrageous that in the year 2000 the rail industry was the subject of a Ministerial Inquiry into health and safety with five deaths within seven months and 22 serious accidents between the years 1993 and 2000. There is no question that during those dark days the law, the regulator and the employer failed rail workers and their families. Similar circumstances stood behind the tragedy at Pike River where 29 workers lost their lives. It appears to me, and probably to the rest of you, that Pike River Coal also put profitability ahead of safety. Conditions are now almost identical for forestry workers where safety is being set aside for profit. I urge you to support the campaign called: What killed Ken Callow and view the video at whatkilledkencallow.org.nz

It is essential that we all commit to fighting for improved workplace safety and remember the lessons from the past.

To this end the RMTU is supporting the publication of a book titled ‘Your Life For The Job’ authored by Hazel Armstrong, a longstanding campaigner for improved healthy and safe workplaces. The book tells the story of rail from 1987 through to the Ministerial Inquiry and reminds us of the gradual and insidious erosion of safety within. It exposes the collaboration between Government political figures, officials and company management and is an important story. It must not be forgotten nor should the sands of time be allowed to bury these details. The book will be launched by the RMTU on the day that we commemorate International Workers’ Memorial Day on 28 April. The RMTU has been a strong supporter of marking this day around NZ since its inception in 1995 and many rail and port memorials have been established throughout the country. We are also expecting the current Independent Health and Safety Taskforce report to be released a few days later and we will watch with anticipation to see their recommendation for the law, the regulator, employers and workers – the four cornerstones for a safer workplace.

It is no mistake that Kiwis are currently twice as likely to die at work than our Australian cousins and six times more likely than workers in the United Kingdom.

Wayne Butson is the general secretary of the Rail and Maritime Transport Union

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