1 in 4 Company Vehicles Will Crash This Year – NZ Needs to Get Fleet Fit Now!

New Zealand’s often overlooked road crash statistics received more profile this week including WorkSafe’s CEO Nicole Rosie in the Herald Business Section and the leading H&S publication SafeGuard magazine. Both highlight that car accidents are a leading cause of work-place injury and death – New Zealand needs to get fleet fit now! SafeGuard refers to car accident claims as the “critical risk #1”.

SafeGuard claims that despite car accident claims being the leading cause of work-place death and injury, NZ businesses are not even properly measuring this critical risk, let alone managing it well.

The morning rush was coming to an end, visibility was good and the road was dry, when a delivery truck ploughed into a line of cars stopped at traffic lights in suburban Auckland. It was a low-speed collision so there were no significant injuries, and mercifully the chain reaction stopped short of the car at the head of the queue, which would otherwise have been shunted into a group of pedestrians. In all, eight vehicles, including the truck, were damaged, and the car I was driving, which took the direct impact, was written off. However, some years down the track, the thing that most sticks in my mind from that morning is the shocked young driver’s emotional outburst, once he’d assured himself that I was ok: “First I get accused of stealing, and now this!”

It’s a safe bet he didn’t tell police accident investigators how his working day had begun, but it would have made no difference. For them this was a simple traffic matter, and work-related factors weren’t in consideration.
Under health and safety law, the man’s employer had a responsibility to investigate those issues, but in an environment where even the ACC/NZTA guideline for safe driving policies makes no mention of post-incident investigation, it’s more likely it was treated as a disciplinary matter.

For any other type of work-related accident few employers would ever consider such an option – at least without looking into all the circumstances first. But because driving has its own regulatory regime, independent of the HSW Act, there is a tendency to treat traffic incidents as somehow separate from mainstream health and safety.
Workplace driving policies often reflect this by following the compliance/punishment model of traffic law, even though the resulting emphasis on driver responsibility is an uncomfortable fit with the more holistic approach of workplace health and safety.

Of course none of this diminishes a PCBU’s fundamental obligation to eliminate or minimise driving risks as far as reasonably practicable, and inform WorkSafe of any road-related incident or injury that meets the threshold for a notifiable event. But perhaps what it does is create an unhelpful distraction that encourages workplaces to address the critical issues associated with work-related driving by managing people rather than risks.

This must be addressed before NZ business can hope to become fleet fit.

The belief that work-related driving is not like other H&S issues is exacerbated by the fact that on-road deaths are excluded from WorkSafe’s official death toll, other than in exceptional circumstances. The likely argument for this is that road deaths and injuries are recorded by other agencies, but NZTA’s Crash Analysis System does not attempt to record the work status of accident victims, and while the Ministry of Transport has a detailed database for crashes involving heavy vehicles, it has no means of identifying how many workers are killed or injured in other types of vehicle crash.

In such circumstances the best available figures may be those from an international study, led by Professor Tim Driscoll of the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health in 2005, which compared the work-related motor vehicle death rates for New Zealand, Australia and the United States. Even this information is badly flawed, however, as the only New Zealand data that was suitable for such analysis dates back to the 1980s and 90s, meaning that around half the deaths in the study occurred before the HSE Act was implemented. Notwithstanding this limitation, the study’s findings initially look like good news for New Zealand. While road traffic accidents were identified as the leading cause of work-related death in Australia – where they accounted for some 31% of worker fatalities, or 1.69 deaths per 100,000 person years – the New Zealand rate was calculated at only 0.99, which, at 16% of the country’s overall workplace toll, was 6% lower than the comparable figure for the United States. However, closer analysis of the information shows less cause for celebration. Firstly the study counted only those who were actually at work at the time of death, meaning all so-called bystander deaths – more common than driver deaths in multi-vehicle heavy transport crashes – were omitted.

Secondly, and more worryingly, a lack of information meant the study team could not determine work-relatedness in 37% of the New Zealand’s road deaths, so they were excluded from the final tally. The study noted, however, that if the proportion of work- and non-work-related cases in the excluded group was assumed to be the same as that for the rest of the sample, New Zealand’s death rate per 100,000 person years would rise to 1.79, representing an alarming 37% of the overall work-related toll. Should this figure be even reasonably accurate it would mean that, as in Australia, road accidents are – or were – the principal cause of work-related death in New Zealand.

Of course, given the age of the data, it’s tempting to assume that this gloomy statistic is now no more than an historical snapshot that bears no resemblance to the present situation. However the study also looked at trend data from the US – the only one of the three jurisdictions with a sufficiently sophisticated system to make such analysis possible – and found that between 1992 and 2001 the rate of work-related driving deaths had risen, despite a decline in the overall road toll.

Given the apparently high incidence of harm associated with work-related driving, it is perhaps surprising that it does not come in for more attention from the two regulatory agencies, WorkSafe NZ and the police. According to WorkSafe’s GM operations and specialist services, Brett Murray, investigating vehicle incidents on public roads is not currently one of its strategic priorities. “There are some situations where we do investigate, such as fatigue or poorly trained drivers, [but] the immediate response and investigation of vehicle-related incidents on public roads is undertaken by the New Zealand Police under road transport laws,” he says. “WorkSafe’s focus is serious incidents that occur on private roads, where they are not looked at by other agencies.” It seems the police, too, have other, more pressing priorities. After being officially designated to enforce the HSE Act in relation to road transport matters, they have now decided to step back from frontline H&S investigations and will not be designated under the HSW Act.

Crash Management can help all business become fleet fit, with accurate data collection at road-side and expert analysis, the causes and trends can quickly be identified including recidivist drivers. Appropriate remedial action can then be taken based on the unique circumstances of the fleet type, operation and environment.

Under the old legislation 43 members of the police Commercial Vehicle Investigation Unit (CVIU) were warranted health and safety inspectors, able to pursue prosecutions without the direct involvement of WorkSafe.
The national manager for road policing, Superintendent Steve Greally, says that in the past two years alone, 37 HSE Act investigations have been carried out by this team. Although he cannot say how many of these resulted in prosecution, two recent high profile cases – involving a major trucking company and its dispatcher who allowed a driver to work when fatigued, and three organisations with shared responsibilities in relation to the death of a rubbish collection worker – were brought by the police. In future, however, all driving-related health and safety prosecutions will be WorkSafe’s responsibility.

This doesn’t mean a total end to police involvement in H&S matters, however. Although at the moment no officers can use HSW Act powers in road crash investigations, it has been agreed in principle that some members of the road policing staff will, in time, become health and safety inspectors. How many appointments will be made, and the timeframe in which it will happen, is unlikely to be known until a new Memorandum of Understanding, currently being negotiated between the two agencies, is completed. In the meantime WorkSafe expects to be informed if the police become aware of any work-related issues during road incident investigations. As yet, it says, there has been no enforcement action for driving matters under the HSW Act.

With both regulatory agencies apparently more focused on after-the-event issues than on the provision of education and resources to support work-related driving, PCBUs may be left wondering how to address the issue. Good information isn’t easy to find. WorkSafe’s website gives no assistance, and a somewhat dated safe driving policy draft on the NZTA website discusses employee obligations and vehicle safety, but offers no advice about how to integrate work-related driving into an organisation’s H&S system or culture.

Crash Management can help support any employer to become more fleet fit. Once the causes of accidents is identified, targeted remedial action can be developed including technology, driver awareness, and re-training/upskilling for the recidivist ‘accident prone’.

On this topic, a newly published Australian research report – Do management practices support or constrain safe driver behaviour? – has some interesting if not altogether encouraging findings. The study, led by organisational psychologist Dr Sharon Newnam of Monash University, follows on from Driscoll’s finding that driving is Australia’s leading cause of work-related death.

The new study was expected to find a package of work practices that would improve driver safety and help address this grim statistic. In the event, however, it found only one scenario that produced a positive impact on driving, and also identified an unexpected link between some popular HR practices and poor on-road behaviour. The study surveyed more than 1100 people from 83 organisations, using workplaces where driving is part of the job, but not its primary focus – mostly healthcare and social service providers.

Senior managers were questioned about their organisation’s practices in relation to High Performance Workplace Systems (HPWS, an HR model that encourages greater employee involvement and responsibility), while workers were asked to assess both their managers’ commitment to health and safety, and their own driving performance.
“The results showed significant relationships between driver behaviour and several HPWS practices, including job and work design, [staff] selection and communication,” the report says. “Higher investment in these practices was associated with poorer driver behaviour.” Improved behaviour was reported only in organisations with high rates of pay, where workers also believed that their managers valued and prioritised safety. Pay or safety commitment alone was found to have no significant impact.

These findings were unexpected, but not inexplicable. Survey responses made it clear that managers did not consider driver safety when planning operational activities, and regarded it as the drivers’ own responsibility. At the same time, HPWS practices were used, not to enhance safety, but to support operational needs and improve productivity or efficiency in the primary work role. “Overall, these results support the argument that road safety is not well integrated within the workplace, and that this lack of integration deters safe driving practices,” the report says. “To achieve reductions in injuries and deaths in this safety critical domain, this situation needs to change.”
The report goes on to suggest that organisations re-focus their efforts, provide clear guidance about driver behaviour expectations, include well-designed and monitored work schedules, develop communication strategies to encourage discussion (and shared management) of on-road risks, and establish staff selection procedures that include a driving history.

The selective focus in this study highlights one of the complicating factors in the management of work-related driving: that those who drive for work often have relatively little in common with those whose work is driving.
Workers who drive incidentally in the course of other roles are generally less skilled, may have to use unfamiliar vehicles or routes, and can struggle to accommodate the combination of driving demands and core work responsibilities. Professional drivers, on the other hand, must comply with prescribed driving-hour limits while at the same time dealing with a variety of road, cargo and logistical challenges.

One positive thing that sets professional drivers apart, however, is their access to collective representation, from both trade unions and an employers’ association. Earlier this year Ken Shirley, CEO of employer group the Road Transport Forum, successfully challenged a proposal to do away with the CVIU’s vehicle safety inspectors – a team of qualified automotive engineers who conduct roadside checks on heavy vehicles. “Heavy combination vehicles are very complex,” Shirley says. “There are a lot of very detailed engineering aspects with regard to things like axle loadings and roll stability, so it’s important to have people with the right sort of specialised knowledge dealing with it. “After hearing what we had to say on the topic the government decided not only to retain the service, but to expand it slightly.”

On the whole, he says, health and safety trends within the commercial driving sector are positive, with the number of accidents having declined significantly over the past 30 years, largely because of improvements to the vehicle stock. Recently, however, chronic recruitment problems within the industry have created an ageing workforce. The average age of heavy vehicle drivers is now 54, he says, and as a result trucking companies are putting more resources into the management of health issues, and the potential for accidents caused by health-related issues.

Jared Abbott, transport, logistics and manufacturing divisional secretary for FIRST Union, also believes that the driver shortage is causing problems, but is primarily concerned about a resulting influx of inexperienced and inadequately trained drivers. “The wages have got so low that people are just not getting into the industry,” he says. “As a result you’re seeing people with very little experience being chucked into really big trucks that they’re not trained to use.” This, in combination with poor quality rural roads that can’t cope with heavy vehicles, have contributed to a recent spike in the accident rate, he believes.

“The truck-related death toll is terrible – between 50 and 60 a year, about 80% of whom are not drivers. The industry definitely hasn’t got its head around health and safety – and I don’t think WorkSafe has got its head around the transport side of things either. “It doesn’t actually record truck-related deaths as workplace ones, even though they clearly are. I think there would be a lot more focus on these important issues if they were recorded this way, so that’s one of the things we’re trying for.”As they like to say in health and safety circles, what gets measured gets done. So let’s get measuring.

See how Crash Management can help your company become fleet fit – see what our clients have to say:


2 Responses

  1. […] driver health and safety implications for company vehicle fleets many times, most recently at https://crashmanagement.nz/1-4-company-vehicles-will-crash-year-nz-needs-get-fleet-fit-now/. WorkSafe have already started treating vehicle accidents seriously. Penalties and fines of […]

  2. Don Smythe
    | Reply

    An excellent overview of fleet risk thanks Crash Management and an interesting article from SafeGuard, its heartening to see some awareness in the H&S proffession around driving risk – finally. Our firm appreciates the 24/7 response crash service and I can confirm that the recommended prevention strategies have helped particularly driver awareness of the risks, AND also a small reduction in the number of incidents reported since we contracted Crash Management for services. Keep up the good work. Thanks Don

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