Full interview: Michael Woodhouse on workplace safety laws

Michael Woodhouse (Paul Henry)
Michael Woodhouse (Paul Henry)

School principals have "nothing to fear" from new workplace health and safety regulation which kicks in next week - at least according to the minister in charge.

Michael Woodhouse said on the Paul Henry programme this morning there is "absolutely nothing in the new law that comes in on Monday which would give principal cause to stop their children playing in the playground or climbing trees".

"Anybody who says that has been very badly misinformed."

The new Health and Safety at Work Act was drafted in response to the Pike River tragedy, but covers all workplaces.

The Secondary Principals' Association has expressed concern, saying it makes principals personally liable for fines of up to $600,000 if kids or staff get hurt. President Patrick Walsh, also principal of John Paul College in Rotorua, says many schools are considering removing playgrounds and rethinking school camps.

Other schools have spent their limited funds on hiring private health and safety auditors to make sure they're ready for the changes. Mr Woodhouse believes for many schools, this has been a waste of money.

"There are a number of so-called health and safety reps who are peddling fear actually, to try and drum up business by auditing schools and documents. We've heard about it in the farming community and in other small businesses," he says.

"There are some really good health and safety consultants out there who can provide a valuable service, and remember that some of these schools are very, very large. They may have several thousand pupils and they have big facilities with furnaces and other things. There's no question that they need to manage risk -- what I'm saying is they don't need to panic."

The much-feared $600,000 fine, for example, already exists under the existing law.

"For a couple of decades there's already been a quite significant fine. They weren't worried about it then and they shouldn't worry about it next week."

Greytown School, which still lets kids play bullrush, has temporarily banned them from climbing trees until they've got clarity on the law. Mr Walsh says Pakuranga College has bought a scissor lift, telling the Otago Daily Times it's "because under the new act you can't use a ladder as a workstation. Above a metre now you require scaffolding or a harness."

Mr Woodhouse says keeping kids out of trees is "not the purpose of the reform", and Pakuranga College's purchase of a scissor lift is "a really good example of where people leap to the most extreme response".

"What we do need to do is prevent falls. So if you are going to use a ladder, make sure it's well-secured; you might have a harness, I don't know."

Mr Woodhouse says claims the Act requires people on ladders more than a metre from the ground to wear a harness or use scaffolding are not true.