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Police staff at Reynella Drive, in Massey, West Auckland, after the fatal shooting of Constable Matthew Hunt on June 19 last year. Photo: Stuff

Health and safety prosecutions for critical incidents involving armed offenders would be unlikely to succeed under existing laws.

The issue of workplace safety for police has been on the radar of members for some time, heightened last year by the death on duty of Constable Matthew Hunt, shot during a roadside traffic stop in Auckland.

It was an event that deeply affected Police staff. At the 2020 Police Association annual conference, some delegates wanted WorkSafe to report on the incident and to set up a process to investigate all critical incidents involving police and the risk posed by armed offenders.

WorkSafe did review the killing of Matt Hunt, and reported that, from its perspective, all correct health and safety systems were in place at the time. Under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015, businesses and organisations are required to do what is “reasonably practicable” to look after health and safety.

In terms of who should investigate the criminal act of shooting a police officer, Police was the best agency, with the best skills and knowledge to do that, as it would in any other similar case. The job of investigating a killing would always fall to Police, it said.

Aware of delegates’ ongoing concerns around staff workplace safety, the association sought a legal opinion on whether Police could potentially be prosecuted under the act for failing to arm frontline officers.

The results of that inquiry were presented to this year’s conference. In general, the advice was that under WorkSafe guidelines it alone must determine which agency is best placed to investigate an incident and, legally, members could not insist that WorkSafe investigated Police.

It was also clear that under existing laws it would be very difficult to prove a criminal health and safety offence for not arming members in a day-to-day situation.

Policing can be a dangerous job with severe consequences, but when it comes to health and safety at work, around the world, it’s not in the top 10 of the most dangerous workplaces for deaths, which, in New Zealand, is topped by the likes of agriculture, transport, warehousing, construction and forestry.

Most years, between 60 and 80 people in New Zealand die in a workplace incident. WorkSafe research suggests that at least 750 people die from work-related health causes each year, such as cancers, heart disease, respiratory illness and other conditions directly linked to workplace exposures, which can take decades to become apparent. A further 5000 people are hospitalised each year.

WorkSafe’s acting head of specialist interventions, Catherine Gardner, who is a former police officer and Police employee, says the types of deaths that happen in workplaces, and who they happen to, mean most people don’t understand how awful these deaths are.

“When I first arrived at WorkSafe and read some of the files, I was horrified by the way in which people died and got injured at work. I had no idea. Invariably these are people working in poor conditions, earning low wages, who don’t always have a voice and they can receive horrific lifelong injuries or, worse, die a horrific death,”
Dr Gardner says.

She says that Police as an organisation is very aware of the risks that police work can pose and will carry out training, provide protective equipment and “take many other steps, which will most likely meet the ‘reasonably practicable’ element required under the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 for those acute harm events”.

Attention to the details of workplace safety was second nature to officers, including the routine wearing of protective clothing and use of TENR, and Police had a robust network of health and safety committees and continued to review its processes.

“Staff may be keen to understand some of the issues which, while not as confronting as a violent incident, if left unaddressed, can cause serious harm to officers,” she says. For example, risks in custody suites and black mold in station offices. Workplace safety also extended to issues of bullying and harassment.

As well as working collaboratively, WorkSafe also needed to choose when it was appropriate to intervene and if it was the best agency to do so, considering it does not have unlimited resources. It employs 613 staff to cover 500,000 PCBUs (Person/s Conducting a Business or Undertaking) in New Zealand. It has 46 investigators. From 2016 to 2021, WorkSafe made 74,930 assessments that led to 1398 investigations.

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