New Zealand is currently undergoing the most significant review of its health and safety regime for 20 years. New Zealand workplace injury rates are twice as high as rates in Australia and six times higher than those in the UK.

In an effort to tackle this, in June 2012 the Minister of Labour announced an Independent Taskforce into Health and Safety. This is due to report its findings to the Government by April 30 this year. Separately, the Royal Commission Report into the Pike River Tragedy released in November 2012 made a number of recommendations which will have implications for all workplaces in New Zealand.

A new Workplace Health and Safety Agency

As a first step, it has been announced that a new Workplace Health and Safety Agency will commence operating from 1 December 2013. This was a key recommendation of the Pike River Royal Commission, and a strong theme in submissions to the Independent Taskforce. The new Agency will replace the existing Health and Safety group which operates as part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (formerly operating under the Department of Labour). It will be a stand-alone Crown Agency and as such will have its own governance board and operate at arm's-length from Ministers. Other workplace health and safety regulators, the Civil Aviation Authority and Maritime New Zealand, already hold Crown Agency status. The thinking is that an independent, focused and properly funded body will be better placed to more effectively develop, promote and enforce safety standards.

The commencement of the new Workplace Health and Safety Agency is likely to be only the first step in significant reforms of New Zealand's health and safety regime. The Government has said it expects to consider the Independent Taskforce's recommendations during May and June this year with a view to introducing new legislation towards the end of the year. The November 2012 report into the Pike River Tragedy made other recommendations which the Government has asked the Independent Taskforce to consider.

What other changes can we expect?

It is likely that the Independent Taskforce will pick up on the key themes from the Pike River Royal Commission and impose more onerous Health and Safety duties on company directors, employers, employees and contractors. The Royal Commission recommended legislative change to improve corporate governance of health and safety at board level. It also recommended that the new Health and Safety Agency issue an improved code of practice to guide directors.

The aim will be to raise the benchmark for health and safety compliance and make it a statutory duty for directors and officers to ensure the business complies with health and safety requirements. The taskforce has also been asked to advise the Government on the merits of introducing corporate manslaughter. Corporate manslaughter is an offence in some other jurisdictions, but to date has not been part of New Zealand's health and safety regime.

The specific recommendations remain to be seen, but one possibility being talked about by commentators is that boards may be required to have a formal health and safety subcommittee which would actively engage with management and employees regarding health and safety. This would help ensure that health and safety is a focus at governance level – as it should be now in all organisations – and that boards do not rely solely on management reporting on health and safety.