We look at the legal requirements for keeping people safe on building sites and investigate the responsibilities that homeowners have under the law.

Explaining the Act

The purpose of the Health and Safety in Employment Act 1992 is to keep workplaces safe and healthy for everyone who goes onto them. A building site comes under the definition of a place of work. The Act places duties on people who either control the work or engage others to do the work. This means that employers, or the person controlling the work (usually the builder and subcontractors, and sometimes the owner), have responsibilities under the Act.

To keep places of work safe, the Act has very strict rules about identifying and managing potential hazards. Where hazards are identified (a hazard is something that can cause harm to someone) then the person controlling the workplace must:

  • Eliminate the hazard if possible.
  • If that is not possible, isolate the hazard.
  • If that is not possible, minimise the hazard.

One example is excavations filling with water, which members of the public (including you or your family) could fall into. The builder, if responsible for the work site, should either:

  • Eliminate the hazard by filling in the hole, or drain the water and cover the hole over.
  • Isolate the hazard by surrounding the hole with fencing strong enough to keep people out.

Minimising the hazard is not really an option in this case.

The employer has to take all reasonable steps to make sure the work done on the building site is carried out in a safe manner. This includes having a health and safety plan for the site, putting up barriers, fences or other safeguards to stop unauthorised people entering, and making sure employees:

  • Have the right training to do the work.
  • Follow all relevant safety procedures.
  • Use tools, equipment and scaffolding in a safe manner.
  • Safely store and secure all materials, plant, equipment and tools.

The Act is primarily administered by the Occupational Safety and Health Service, which is part of the Department of Labour.

Your responsibilities under the Act

Building a new house
When you hire someone to build your home you become a principal under the Act. A principal must take all reasonably practicable steps to ensure that no contractor or subcontractor, or their employees, are harmed while doing any work on the house site.

To fulfil your duties as a principal there are a few things you can do:

  • Make sure the main contractor keeps the site fenced.
  • Make sure the main contractor has a health and safety site plan. Ask to see a copy before you sign the contract.
  • Only engage people who you know are aware of the health and safety laws in New Zealand.
  • Make sure there is always someone in charge – with subcontractors coming and going, it won’t always be clear who is managing health and safety on the site at any point in time so you need to make sure there are clear lines of responsibility.

If you bring a group of friends on site to do some of the work, the builder will not be responsible if one of them gets hurt. For example, should you organise a working bee to do the painting while there are still workmen on the site, and one of your friends collides with the electrician and is impaled on the drill he was using, under the Act you may be responsible for those injuries.

Renovations and repairs
A person already living in the house, who hires people to do repairs or renovations, is not a principal under the Act, i.e. house occupiers are excluded from liability under the Act.

What should be in a health and safety site plan?

Your main contractor’s health and safety site plan should include:

  • Who is responsible for health and safety on site.
  • Identification and control of potential hazards.
  • Posting of notices and warnings of potential hazards.
  • Restriction of access to the site to authorised people only.
  • Guidance on ensuring a safe working environment at all times, for example, avoiding stacking things that could topple over.
  • Instruction in safe methods and practices.
  • Provision for safety meetings.
  • Safety audits on plant and procedures.
  • The recording and investigation of accidents.

No contracting out of responsibilities

People who have duties under the Act - for example, the person in control of the place of work (excluding the home occupier) - cannot contract out of their responsibilities under the Act. If the contract you're asked to sign includes a clause which requires you to indemnify the builder for their liability under the Health and Safety in Employment Act, (in other words take on their liabilities under the Act), delete that clause.

Keeping the family safe on the building site

When you are having a house built or renovations done, make sure you keep yourself, along with other family members and visitors safe from the hazards on the building site. Typical hazards include crushing, dust, electrocution, exposure to chemicals, and falls.

Do what the builder or contractor asks in relation to safety on the building site. If they ask you to keep the children out of certain areas, even if you are living in part of the house, you have to do what they say, not only for the safety of your children but also because if something happens to harm them, the builder or contractor could be liable.

So make sure everyone, especially the children, knows which areas are out-of-bounds.