Supervision for health and safety

by The Findlaw Team

Adequate supervision is an essential element in ensuring the health and safety of employees and others while at work. For this reason, a requirement to provide employees with supervision is embedded in New Zealand’s health and safety legislation.

This article looks at the legal requirements for employers to provide appropriate supervision for health and safety in the workplace and gives examples of cases where they have been prosecuted for failing to do so.

Health and Safety in Employment Act

Section 13 of the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 requires employers to take all practicable steps to make sure that every employee who does any work either has the appropriate knowledge and experience, or is supervised by a person who has.

The supervising person should:
  • Make sure that employees doing the work are not likely to harm themselves, another employee, or any other person; and
  • Be adequately trained to safely use all materials, machines, tools, plant, and equipment that the employees may need to use.

In practice

In practice, this legal requirement means that employers must make sure that employees do not undertake any unsupervised work unless they have the necessary knowledge and experience to do it safely.

Inadequate supervision is often a major factor workplace injuries suffered by inexperienced employees.

Untrained employees, or those being trained, should be directly supervised by someone who has the knowledge and experience, and who has been adequately trained in the work to be done.

A single person could supervise a group of untrained employees, depending on the complexity of the work and the nature of the hazards involved.

In order to carry out their supervisory role effectively, a supervisor needs to have appropriate knowledge, skills, attitude and awareness. The supervisor needs to become familiar with the new employee’s strengths and weaknesses.

Supervisors share responsibility for health and safety in the workplace with both the workers and management. They act as a vital link between the two and should be given the necessary support and information from the management team.

There should be good communication between the new employee and their supervisor, and the employee should be able to feel they can approach their supervisor if they encounter any difficulties – mutual respect is a key aspect of an effective relationship.

The supervisor should keep a close eye on the new employee, especially in jobs where there is a high risk of serious harm, until they feel the employee is able to carry out their job safely without constant monitoring. Even then, the supervisor should regularly check on the employee’s ability to do the job.

Case example: Office work

Adequate supervision is needed in all sorts of work, not just work that is obviously dangerous, such as machine operation. An example is the case of Stewart (Health and Safety Inspector) v Price Waterhouse Administration (1997).

A year after starting a job as the office junior, the employee was promoted to secretary working for five people in the office. She developed occupational overuse syndrome (OOS) as a direct result of her work and the set-up of her work station. Two years after her promotion, she was retired on medical grounds because she was unable to fulfil her role as a secretary.

The District Court held that the employee’s disabilities were a direct result of the employer’s failure to recognise that her typing abilities were limited. Being responsible for the work of five people put her under unacceptable strain.

The Court said that employers are not entitled to leave an employee with inadequate skills to their own devices to do what they can to avoid OOS. It was the employer’s job to provide supervision, open systems of communication, and appropriate office furniture.

Case example: Dangerous work

The case of McKee Fehl Constructors Ltd v Department of Labour (1997), shows that if the work is inherently dangerous, a very high level of supervision is required.

McKee Fehl Constructors had sub-contracted another company to erect a steel frame during construction of an apartment block.

There was an agreement between the two companies that only properly trained dogmen would be used for loading and unloading.

McKee offered to train the other sub-contractor’s employees, but they said their employees did not need training.

During the job, one of the sub-contractor’s employees fell two levels and was injured. He had never done this sort of work, had not been given any training, and was never told to wear a safety harness. McKee’s employees working alongside the sub-contractor’s employees were aware that the man who was injured was inexperienced.

The District Court noted that McKee should have been vigilant in making sure that its safety requirements for sub-contractors were complied with. The company was convicted of breaching the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 and fined $10,000. It appealed.

The High Court upheld the conviction. It noted that McKee knew that lifting by crane and dogging loads was potentially dangerous.

If an inherently dangerous practice is adopted, a very high level of supervision is required – this high level was absent in this case.

The Court said, it would have been preferable for the company to avoid the need for such a high level of supervision by employing a much safer system of work, such as a cage grappled to the building.

Case example: Close monitoring of inexperienced employee required

In South Pacific Meats Ltd v New Zealand Meat Workers Union Inc (2012), an employee was injured while operating a shank saw which he had not been trained to use and while under minimal supervision.

The High Court held that supervision of the employee was inadequate. The supervisor should have more closely monitored how the employee was coping on the shank saw in the circumstances.

Had there been closer monitoring, it is likely that someone would have seen he was getting behind, did not have a table, and/or was stacking meat on the bench top contrary to instructions.

Had a supervisor observed this, he or she would have been able to intervene.

The company was fined $23,000 for breaching section 6 of the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 and ordered to pay reparation of $5000.

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