Story: Workplace safety and compensation
Men took their lives in their hands when they went logging or coal mining in the 19th century. If a worker was injured or died families were left to fend for themselves. But since the 1970s New Zealand has compensated people who are injured through a government-owned scheme which is unique in the world.
Full story by Hazel Armstrong
Main image: 'Correct stacking' poster
The Short Story
A quick, easy summaryRead the Full Story
19th century industries
Whaling, logging and mining were early New Zealand industries and all were dangerous. Branches flying off toppling trees were known as ‘widow-makers’ in the 19th century. It was also dangerous transporting logs down rivers – if someone fell they were usually crushed or drowned. Men who were injured got no compensation, and if they died their families struggled on their own.
Girls worked very long hours in woollen mills and some were injured by the machines. As factories sprang up, accidents became common.
People and goods were often transported by coastal sailing ships, and work on board was hard and dangerous.
By 1891 deaths from workplace accidents were higher in New Zealand than in Britain.
The Employers’ Liability Act 1882 gave injured workers the right to sue for compensation if their employer had neglected to make a workplace safe. But they had to have the money to take a case to court, which was expensive, and might not succeed.
After 1891 factories could be inspected for safety under the Factories Act. The government charged mine employers a levy and used the fund to compensate miners for accidents.
After the Workers’ Compensation Act 1900 workers no longer had to prove employers were negligent if they wanted to be compensated for an injury. If they were killed at work, their families were paid a weekly sum. But compensation was small, and for a maximum of six years.
After the First World War, soldiers who had been injured were left to fend for themselves when they returned to New Zealand. Public pressure mounted for compensation for injuries and for rehabilitation. This increased after the Second World War.
In 1947 it became compulsory for employers to take out insurance for workplace injuries. The Workers’ Compensation Board was set up in 1950 to cover workers whose employers did not provide proper accident compensation.
A royal commission was set up in 1966 to investigate injury compensation. They recommended that New Zealand should provide a 24-hour, no-fault insurance for all personal injury (not just workplace), in return for the loss of the right to sue for compensation for injuries caused by negligence.
The Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) was set up by the government in 1972. Employers and workers paid levies to ACC. Owners of cars and other vehicles also paid levies to cover road accidents.
ACC paid for treatments for injuries and for rehabilitation. If people were off work from injuries, they were paid 80% of their salary.
In 2008 ACC collected $3.7 million from levies. Some of the money was spent on injury prevention.
People in more dangerous occupations paid higher levies, and from 1992 employers’ levies were subject to an ‘experience’ rating, based on the number of previous claims.
In the early 2000s New Zealanders paid less for ACC than people paid for comparable schemes around the world, but people debated whether the government should own an insurance company, and whether the scheme would be more efficient if it faced competition.