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H&S Industry News

Understanding Workplace Safety Obligations – Lessons from the Port of Auckland Trial

In light of the recent trial involving former Port of Auckland CEO Tony Gibson, where unprecedented charges were brought following the tragic workplace death of Pala’amo Kalati, it’s essential for PCBUs (persons conducting a business or undertaking) to grasp the implications of workplace safety legislation and understand their obligations.

This close-to-home case serves as a stark reminder of the importance of prioritising safety in the workplace and the potential consequences for those responsible.

As a PCBU, individuals and entities conducting business or undertakings bear significant responsibilities under health and safety legislation. This includes directors, officers, business owners, and self-employed individuals who must prioritise the safety of their workforce.

It’s crucial to recognise that regardless of the form of insurance held, PCBUs cannot contract out of their safety obligations. This means that PCBUs must take proactive steps to mitigate risks and ensure compliance with health and safety laws.

Directors and Officers’ Responsibilities

Directors and officers within organisations hold a duty of care to ensure the health and safety of workers. They are accountable for implementing and monitoring effective safety procedures, and failure to do so can result in serious legal consequences.

The concept of an officer within a PCBU is significant. An officer is anyone with the authority to make decisions or allocate resources within the organisation. This includes individuals who have the ability to spend money or authorise expenditures, highlighting their significant role in ensuring workplace safety.

The “Reasonably and Practicably” Standard

One key aspect of a PCBU’s obligations is the requirement to “reasonably and practicably” inform themselves about how other PCBUs are operating. This means taking proactive steps to understand potential risks and hazards within the workplace and implementing measures to mitigate them. 

Navigating Workplace Health and Safety Legislation

Within organisations, it is essential to have clarity on who holds positions as directors and officers and what their obligations are under workplace health and safety legislation. The Workplace Health and Safety Act of 4 April 2016 outlines these obligations and provides guidance on ensuring compliance.

Diligence in Practice

Officers within organisations must exercise reasonable care, diligence, and skill to minimise or eliminate critical risks. This includes ensuring the implementation of safe distance rules, coordinating effectively between different roles, and assessing risks during operational changes such as the Covid-19 pandemic response.

Lessons Learned

The tragic situation at the Port of Auckland, where a loss of life occurred, underscores the real-world consequences of failing to prioritise workplace safety. The prosecution alleged systemic deficiencies in health and safety procedures at the port and highlights the importance of directors and officers fulfilling their responsibilities diligently.

The trial serves as a sobering reminder of the consequences of failing to prioritise workplace safety. Whilst PCBUs must take proactive steps to understand their obligations under health and safety legislation in New Zealand and Australia, this case ignites the debate of whether CEOs of large corporations should reasonably be aware of key operational details within their organisations.

This departure from typical cases, which often target smaller businesses with more direct involvement in day-to-day operations, underscores a significant shift in executive accountability. If found guilty, this case could redefine the responsibilities of CEOs, requiring them to take greater responsibility for understanding the inner workings of their companies rather than pleading ignorance. It challenges traditional notions of executive accountability and could potentially set a new precedent in the legal landscape.


If you’re a PCBU seeking support in understanding and fulfilling your workplace safety obligations, consider reaching out to SiteConnect or one of our expert partners for assistance. Whether it’s conducting a gap analysis or implementing safety management systems, our team is dedicated to helping you prioritise safety in your organisation. Contact us today to learn more.

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