The Royal Commission's Report on the Pike River coal mine tragedy has made strong recommendations around health and safety laws and has called for a review of the responsibility of directors for health and safety.

In its report the Commission has criticised New Zealand's health and safety record compared with other advanced countries. In the case of the Pike River mine, the Commission concluded that the then Department of Labour did not have the focus, capacity or strategy to ensure Pike River was meeting its legal obligations for health and safety.

Sixteen principal recommendations have been made to reduce the risk of further workplace accidents or tragedies. Two of those recommendations have implications for all directors and employers:

A new regulator

  • The creation of a Crown entity headed by an executive board, accountable to a minister, that sets direction, appoints the Chief Executive and maintains oversight.

However, Prime Minister John Key has said that the idea of establishing a crown agency solely focused on health and safety needs further investigation and that a ministerial task force will be headed by Hon Steven Joyce, to look into what is best for the Government.

Legislative change required - duties of directors

  • The Commission found that the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 (HSEA) was generally fit for purpose, but some changes are required and that those relating to directors needed early attention.
  • Currently under the HSEA where a company fails to comply with a provision of the HSEA a director can be liable for punishment. Under guidelines published in 2009 by the Department of Labour, directors can be prosecuted where a director had clear knowledge that the situation in question was unsafe or otherwise contrary to health and safety legislation.
  • Despite the current provisions in the HSEA, the Commission has made three specific recommendations about directors:
    • review statutory responsibilities of directors for health and safety in the workplace to better reflect their governance responsibilities;
    • the health and safety regulator should issue an approved code of practice to guide directors; and
    • directors should rigorously review and monitor their organisation's compliance with health and safety laws and best practice.

Corporate manslaughter

The Commission did not recommend a change to legislation to allow for corporate manslaughter, which is what some of the families of the Pike River victims were calling for. Such a law was introduced in the UK in 2007 and allows companies and organisations to be found guilty of corporate manslaughter as a result of serious management failures; such as have been found by the Commission in the Pike River case.