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When people die at work it’s always a safety issue

LATEST: When will the next fatality happen at Lyttelton Port?

Another tragic fatal injury from a work accident in New Zealand, this time on board a fertiliser ship berthed at Lyttelton, Port of Christchurch.

My heart goes out to the family, friends and colleagues of the deceased man.

What went wrong?
Every accident is preventable, and there is never an acceptable excuse for placing any worker into harm’s way, let alone repeatedly exposing workers to fatal risks. These tragedies were preventable – and so why weren’t they?

For one, the Maritime New Zealand (formerly the Maritime Safety Authority) spokesman who said, “There doesn’t appear to be any safety issues or equipment failures that have lead up to this. It seems to be a wrong place wrong time sort of thing” clearly does not, to me, understand that the site and its safety management systems have failed this deceased man and his family.

Even more sadly this is the second fatality at the Lyttelton, Port of Christchurch facility within a month, showing with arguable certainty that this worksite has broken safety systems and processes, leadership and culture (the company says the port is safe).

Is safety even a priority for the port?
One crude indicator which we can all see, aside from these twin tragedies, is that the Lyttelton Port of Christchurch website carries no reference I can find to either fatality, not even in their media releases. Sure, the fatalities may (or may not) have happened by workers not employed by or contracted directly to the port, but they occurred on their site.

Another indicator is that finding out about safety on the website is hard – it’s buried within the menu structure, and the result when there is underwhelming.

What should happen?

Lyttelton has faced tremendous challenges following the earthquake and no doubt the challenges will continue as the rebuild evolves. But challenges to operations should never be a priority over safety.

LPC is a listed company but 80% is held by Christchurch City Holdings (CCH), which is generally very smart. CCH and the board should be entering crisis management mode, and ensuring the company responds with appropriate seriousness. At the very least I hope they all understand that this is arguably a lapse in duty of care that could elsewhere remove the site’s “licence to operate.”

The board and management team should not rest until they can state unequivocally that the safety systems and culture have changed, and changed for good, and that people on their site can go home unharmed each day.

What would I do?
If this were under my control the port (and any other facility) would be shut down immediately after any fatality and not reopened until control of fatal risks was regained. I would conduct an all-hands meeting (as suggested by the union) and ask everyone to commit to a tougher set of site safety rules – and enforce them.

The rules would include the obligation to stop any observed unsafe work and I’d hire in external experts to stick around for months to coach everyone through the process. Not everyone will get the new Zero Harm approach and a small percentage may need to be prohibited from accessing the site.

As an uninformed outsider in any case like this I would stand the CEO down. I would replace him with a new leader with a mandate to place Zero Harm back at the top of the site priorities. I am sure the CEO in this instance is going through hell and I appreciate that me saying this will not make that better.

He may well be superb at his job but the priorities the board and he agreed to were not correct and an epiphany is required.  So while the CEO may be able to change his approach, he is also somewhat caught in the crossfire here and in my experience removing the CEO (and at times the management team and/or board as well) is the strongest signal that owners can send to a site that things simply have to change. 

Finding a new CEO who will drive change will not be an easy job, and neither will that person have an easy time of it. He or she will need to work top down and bottom up, and get the support of the union, employers and all the other players on site to make sure that safety outcomes improve.

It’s a challenging job but one that has been successfully done across a wide range of industries – I’d start by calling recruiters for senior staff in the Australian mining sector.  

The standard is quite simple really – we should all fight to ensure that everyone gets to go home safely at the end of each day. 

Entrepreneur Lance Wiggs posts at

The oriigninal version of this article incorrectly attributed a Maritime New Zealand (formerly the Maritime Safety Authority) quote to a Maritime Union of NZ (MUNZ) spokesman.

More by Lance Wiggs

Comments and questions

It is people who make mistakes, not systems or paperwork and red tape.
People should take responsibility for their own safety and not relying on ticking boxes on a peace of paper and try to blame the system or the company or in the end the government!

While we are all responsible for our own safety, we also have a duty of care for the safety of others. This is enshrined into law for management and directors of companies.

It's clearly not ok, for example, to place the blame for the Pike River disaster on to the staff who were underground. Those staff were not in control of their work environment. Were the stevedores here?

A well run safety management system (use paper, pen, computers or whatever) systematically identifies and removes hazards, especially fatal ones. It takes both a system as well as the continued commitment of everyone on site, and if it ever descends to the level of "ticking boxes" then it's not working. I for one would not want box tickers who "know what's safe" anywhere on a site where there is hazardous work going on.

As an uninformed outsider Lance, you would be best to stay outside. Your comments are unhelpful and will not enhance safety. Its always easy to throw stones.

I throw a lot of stones, but they are generally considered ones. But please excuse me if I get angry when people die. It's unacceptable in any industry, and it's unacceptable in any country.

I have had positive feedback from safety-oriented articles that I have published in the past, from both inside and outside industry. One was, I'm told, posted on the wall of the safety advisor for a very large Auckland based organisation.

Safety practitioners need all the help they can get in New Zealand, and this is not an area where there is really room for compromise.

I find this post incredibly naive and irritating.

Mr. Wiggs seems to think that the whole world begins and ends with respect to websites and ecommerce. The fact that he can go to the Company's website and say because the website hasn't been updated that the Port has a safety issue. Or that a few nice mission statements (which would reflect the bulk of Wiggs' depth in this very detailed area) suffice for a detailed health, safety, and environmental system.

Believe it or not Wiggs but the first thing that a Company should do after an HSE incident is fully investigate the issue, surrounding factors, root causes, and how to stop it from occurring. This involves significant time working with regulatory authorities and the company is not even in a position to even legally talk about it.

Health and safety is not a CEO job. Or even the HSE Manager's job. It is a culture and lives through-out the entire organisation. We are right to be worried about what has happened at the Port - but uniformed calls for resignations make fixing the situation harder - not better. This is not how you foster better HSE environments - this is not how you save lives.

Lance - I can tolerate to hear you bloviate technology investment - but not on health and safety. The NBR should put up actual experts in this area - not technology wannabes.

I don't expect you to know my CV, but I have spent considerable time working on mining/concentrating/smelter/refining sites in Australia, South Africa and Mozambique, and even time in on site in Colombia. In most of these I co-lead (with a client) a team of 12-35 internal and external staff to deliver a massive change in the business performance - across safety, people, volume, and cost measures. In all cases we reported to and worked with the GM to transform the site.

The two longest and largest projects (combining for over 2 years on site) had GMs who were then and later recognised within the larger firm (BHP Billiton) for their outstanding safety leadership - delivering transformational change on site in safety behaviours and outcomes. In both of these cases our team was handed critical elements of the safety change program to implement alongside our own work - and we delivered. In my own role I also helped set the standards for how to close out near misses and major incidents - and so on and on.

In short I've seen, been part of and helped lead safety (and business) transformation at two of the most impressive safety transformation programmes at one of the world's leading Zero Harm businesses.

But none of this matters - what matters is that two people died, and we want to make sure that nobody else is exposed to fatal harm.

I agree that the right thing to do when an incident happens is to understand the root causes, and the more serious the issue, the more serious the investigation. (These were the sorts of investigations where I helped set the standard at sites). However when a fatality occurs then we need to level up our expectations of what happens. The primary concern (after taking care of the family and colleagues) should be to ensure that the fatally hazardous work is rendered safe, at least with temporary fixes, or stopped. In this instance it seems abundantly clear that the port is unable to guarantee the safety of workers there and something has to change.

HSE is everyone's responsibility, but legally and ethically the buck stops with the board and the CEO. Genuine board and CEO/GM commitment utterly transforms safety behaviour on the floor, but it is not easy. GM commitment means things like spending at least an hour a day on safety - walking the site with a varying direct report (and cascading that down). Commitment from leadership means demonstrating time and time again that you place safety before production, and ensuring that all staff on all levels feel comfortable stopping work. It means continuously striving to do better, and not accepting hazardous work environments, whether under your control or not.

Lance - excellent commentary. You hit several nails on the head.

I am a former senior HSE guy - I worked for several very large NZ companies. Without leadership direct from the CEO, safety culture will not happen. The CEO sets the tone for culture in the company, including health and safety.

Sadly, too many NZ companies really do not care about safety. Their performance record says so. Many of these companies that have poor performance in H&S see safety as a compliance issue, not a performance issue. Who is to blame for this? Always start with the CEO, then move down the chain.

I'll offer a theory I have been testing for many years now. I think you cannot find a company that is terrible at health and safety but good at everything else - customer satisfaction, good products, strong financial performance, etc. That the Port of Lyttleton's H&S performance is clearly spiralling downwards undoubtedly means that the companies other performance indicators will also be wanting.

And yes, the board of the Port of Lyttleton, along with the board of the Port's owner - CCHL - should shake the management tree pretty hard and demand meaningful change.

Rereading this I was pretty tough on the CEO. I also managed to attribute a quote from Maritime NZ for MUNZ. My apologies to both.

Wiggs your article is lacks balance. All rules and regs will not prevent staff occasionally being stupid and harming themselves. It's a bit like drunk driving everybody knows you shouldn't and it is well policed but still people do it.

Wiggs your article is lacks balance. All rules and regs will not prevent staff occasionally being stupid and harming themselves. It's a bit like drunk driving everybody knows you shouldn't and it is well policed but still people do it.

Prosper - your comment lacks balance. Lance was identifying that two fatalities in one workplace in such a short time period is in fact a trend.

I doubt that you are involved in the investigation and therefore should not be commenting on personal negligence as a root cause. This would be incredibly insensitive to the families suffering their loss.

Your comment also indicates an attitude that lies at the heart of our appalling workplace safety record in this country. No one deserves to die at work, zero harm is possible and we all need to commit to that vision.

Lance - please keep publishing these stories - I share them far and wide.

Lance top line and correct, diabolical performance from LPC after hiring new HSE officers