The recent Health and Safety reforms aim to reduce New Zealand’s workplace injury and death toll by 25 per cent as early as 2020. It’s a big target and the biggest shake-up to our health and safety legislation in 20 years. So it’s not surprising there are people still trying to get their heads around the changes, worried about their personal liability.

Business owners such as Christchurch’s annual ‘Le Race’ event owner and organiser, Sheree Stevens have some fears. She was already liable under the previous legislation but the compliance requirements now are bigger and the potential for prosecution is higher.

However, Workplace Relations and Safety Minister Michael Woodhouse is calling for calm and denies the reforms are a knee-jerk reaction. Woodhouse accepts people will need to carefully review their systems, and doesn’t dispute the likelihood of more prosecutions but he does argue that responsibilities and liabilities for health and safety already exist and the changes aren’t necessarily a major issue for everyone.

The new workplace health and safety act, explains Woodhouse, comes down to facilitating a shift in attitude by New Zealanders. The focus is now on reducing workplace ignorance through accountability, engagement and being proactive. Compliance will be a bigger part of everyday life following the law changes, but Woodhouse is confident there will be fewer deaths and serious injuries as a result.

The new law expands responsibility beyond workplaces to include organisations such as volunteer groups, clubs and charities – charities such as the Life Education Trust. The Trust employs 45 staff, who together with 450 volunteers help provide health education to more than 250,000 children a year. Chief executive, John O’Connell supports the equal application of the law to include organisations like theirs.

Chen Palmer lawyer James Dunne agrees everyone needs to give the new rules time. The number of prosecutions will likely go up, says Dunne, but “nobody ever died from too much health and safety.”

Workplace health and safety is no longer just a tick-box exercise. The Act changes the focus from the physical workplace to the way work is carried out – what your business actually does and therefore what it can control. The new key emphasis is on everyone in the workplace being responsible for health and safety for themselves and the people around them.