Health and safety protections
How health and safety laws are enforced
What are my health and safety duties as an employee?
As an employee, you must take reasonable care for your own health safety while at work, and you must also make sure you don’t harm anyone else.
You must follow, as far as you’re reasonably able to, any instructions that your employer or supervisors give you about health and safety. You should cooperate with any reasonable policies or procedures around health and safety that your employer has told you about. For example, you must use protective clothing or equipment that your employer has provided.
If you fail to comply with health and safety rules, this could lead to disciplinary action against you.
Note: The fact that you have those responsibilities as an employee doesn’t affect or limit the health and safety duties of employers and others.
What can I do if I think my workplace is unsafe?
If your workplace has a health and safety representative, you should first raise the issue with them.
If that doesn’t resolve the problem or if there isn’t a health and safety representative, you can complain to Worksafe New Zealand. Their health and safety inspectors can investigate breaches of health and safety laws and enforce the laws. You don’t have to give your name when you complain.
Can I refuse to do work on health and safety grounds?
You can refuse to do work if you believe it would expose you (or anyone else) to a serious risk. The risk has to come from an “immediate or imminent” exposure to a hazard.
You should raise the problem with your employer as soon as you can. You could do this with your company’s health and safety representative. If the problem isn’t resolved, you can continue to refuse to do the work so long as you have reasonable grounds for believing there’s a serious risk.
You can contact Worksafe (0800 030 040) anonymously if you’re concerned about any unsafe or unhealthy work situation that could lead to death, serious injury or illness. You could also reach out to your union for support.
Note: You’ll have reasonable grounds for continuing to refuse to do the work if you’ve been told by your workplace’s health and safety representative that it would expose you or someone else to a serious risk.
Health and safety inspectors
Health and safety inspectors work for WorkSafe New Zealand, the government agency responsible for enforcing the health and safety laws. Inspectors have the legal right to enter any workplace to ask questions, gather information and take samples.
Note: It’s a criminal offence to obstruct or delay health and safety inspectors when they’re doing their work.
What can an inspector do to enforce health and safety laws?
Once an inspector has investigated a health and safety problem at your workplace, there are a range of options. The inspector can:
- decide to take no further action,
- speak or write to your employer about their safety practices,
- give them a written warning,
- give the employer an improvement notice, requiring them to take some action to comply with the health and safety laws,
- give the employer a prohibition notice, requiring them to immediately stop a particular activity,
- give the employer an infringement notice, requiring them to pay a fine (an “infringement fee”).
In the most serious cases, WorkSafe New Zealand can bring a criminal prosecution.
Criminal offences under the health and safety laws
Employers can be given significant criminal penalties for breaching the health and safety laws:
- Breaching a duty – If an employer breaches a health and safety duty, but no one is exposed to any serious risk, they can be convicted and fined up to $100,000 if they’re an individual person and up to $500,000 if they’re a company.
- Creating a serious risk – If an employer breaches a health and safety duty and this exposes their workers or others to a risk of death, serious injury or serious illness, they can be fined up to $300,000 if they’re an individual and up to $1.5 million if they’re a company.
- Recklessly creating a serious risk – If an employer recklessly does something that exposes their workers or others to the risk of death, serious injury or serious illness, they may face a jail term. They can be jailed for up to five years or fined up to $600,000, or both if they’re an individual. If the employer is a company, they can be fined up to $3 million.
Can I get compensation if I’m injured because of an unsafe workplace?
If you’re injured because of an unsafe workplace and can’t work because of this, you can get compensation under ACC (see: “Accident compensation (ACC)”).
You’ll receive 80% of your wages. The first week’s compensation is paid by your employer and then by ACC after that. There are also some lump-sum payments available for specified permanent injuries (for example, the loss of a limb).
If your employer pleads guilty to a charge under the Health and Safety at Work Act, you may be offered the chance to participate in a restorative justice process with them before sentencing. It’s up to you whether you do this.
Employers who are convicted of breaching health and safety laws can be fined and ordered to pay reparation. The inspector will talk to you and prepare a Victim Impact Statement to be given to the judge at sentencing.
The Victim Impact Statement should give details about how the offending affected you. This includes things like your physical injuries, any emotional harm and any costs involved in your recovery. Reparation could include the 20% of lost wages that were not covered by ACC, compensation for any emotional harm you suffered and related out-of-pocket expenses like any medical bills or counselling fees.
Note: If the employer would otherwise be fined and ordered to pay reparation, but can’t afford to pay both, the judge will order reparation only.
Can I be fired or treated unfairly for speaking out about a workplace accident or health and safety issues?
You can bring a personal grievance if your employer fires you or otherwise treats you unfairly to get back at you for some actions you’ve taken relating to health and safety, including if you:
- stopped work on health and safety grounds, or
- raised health and safety issues, or
- talked to a health and safety inspector.
For more information, see: “Health and safety: Retaliation because you stuck up for your rights in the workplace”.