Viewpoint: How New Zealand's Health and Safety Agency Responded to COVID-19

By Katherine Teixeira Bender June 8, 2020
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downtown Auckland, New Zealand

​New Zealand's success in fighting the pandemic thus far is due to many factors, such as its geography, population size and government policies. The New Zealand government, including its health and safety regulator WorkSafe, responded quickly to ensure it minimized the impact of COVID-19 on its people, and the restrictions and border closures have been described as aggressive but have worked.

New Zealand closed its borders on March 19, barring all inbound travel except returning New Zealanders and some health workers, reported CNBC. On March 23 it closed nonessential businesses, banned discretionary domestic air travel and required the cancellation of all events and gatherings, according to the news outlet. Further restrictions were imposed two days later, when people were urged to maintain contact only with those living with them.

While the lockdown has been eased, New Zealand has not been spared from the worldwide recession resulting from the pandemic and lockdowns. A tax reform measure of 3 billion New Zealand dollars (1.8 billion USD) was provided to small businesses as a result of the economic downturn, CNBC said. In addition, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern as well as government ministers and public service chief executives took 20 percent pay cuts. 

So far, 22 New Zealanders have died from the coronavirus, according to The New Zealand Herald. The country has the second-lowest COVID-19 death rate in the 37-nation Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development at 0.45 deaths for every 100,000 people; only Australia's death rate is lower.

WorkSafe is similar to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in the U.S. Set up as its own agency in 2013 following a disastrous mining accident, WorkSafe is an organization of health and safety subject-matter experts. For COVID-19, WorkSafe and all New Zealand watched as the country saw the imminent threat that was outside its borders. As an organization, WorkSafe started planning its regulatory response as well as its own internal response from Jan. 31, a month before New Zealand had its first COVID-19 case on Feb. 28.

Initial Response

WorkSafe's executives set up a COVID Response team on Jan. 31, consisting of key contacts from across the organization: people, culture and safety; IT; risk; communications; and external engagement. The agency had just hired an incident-response lead who helped organize the response to the Whakaari/ White Island volcanic eruption less than two months before.

As soon as the COVID Response team began, WorkSafe started fielding questions and receiving recommendations about its own people's health and well-being and listened.

When some of WorkSafe's more vulnerable employees started feeling anxious about being in the office, the agency allowed them to work from home. When considering how to support employees who contracted COVID-19, WorkSafe acknowledged that the annual allotment of 10 days sick leave would be wiped out and additional special paid leave would need to be offered.

The agency prioritized its employees' safety and well-being. Office furniture was shipped home if people were experiencing pain or discomfort due to working on temporary desks, such as dining room tables. WorkSafe focused more on employee wellness and asked its people to stay home even if they just had a sniffle.

When the government said that employees who are older should work from home, WorkSafe immediately sent targeted e-mails to those individuals and their managers to provide that support.

Remote Working

The agency learned to work differently when the countrywide lockdown was announced, forcing all WorkSafe employees to work from home within 48 hours. Normally most WorkSafe inspectors are out speaking with businesses and helping ensure they are operating safely. Under the lockdown, the agency's people had to make those connections via phone or through a partnership with New Zealand Police in case there was a complaint or work-related death.

A governmentwide system was also put in place so the agencies were linked together, sharing resources in response to concerns from the public.

WorkSafe was in the process of rolling out some new organization-wide technology when the lockdown was announced; the IT team had to move up its implementation and release dates, while fielding hundreds of requests for help on how to work remotely. Suddenly a large portion of the workforce had to be upskilled on the new technology and way of working, and quickly.

Communication and flexibility were key. The agency increased its amount and types of communications. WorkSafe essentially doubled the number of online newsletters and started virtual meetings for all people leaders, as well as companywide virtual meetings where its executives helped field questions.

One of the key messages WorkSafe stressed throughout communications was the importance of flexibility. The agency acknowledged that productivity was going to be lower than usual and supported its people to work the hours they could within reason.


SHRM Resource Spotlight
Coronavirus and COVID-19

Return to the Office

When the lockdown was declared to be over, WorkSafe had a plan in place to ensure its people returned safely to its offices. It ran a rapid input process, involving as many employees as it could from across organization, including internal health and safety representatives, union members and people leaders. The agency landed on an approach that involved a gradual return to the office. The plan was picked up by the wider New Zealand government, which recommended the same approach for all government offices.

Now New Zealand seems to be on the other side of COVID-19; on average it only has no cases to one new case of COVID-19 each day, and they are all traceable.

Katherine Teixeira Bender is an HR professional from Miami and Atlanta, working abroad in Wellington, New Zealand, as an HR business partner for WorkSafe New Zealand. 

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