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A view from the other side of the world

I have just returned from a visit to New Zealand, hosted by the New Zealand government. I was invited to attend and speak at an international conference, to talk to Government officials about our health and safety system and my visit also included a day spent in Christchurch seeing the challenges they face in rebuilding the city and surrounding Canterbury following the earthquakes in 2010 and 2011.

I was surprised to discover that in a country of a little over four million people their level of workplace fatalities is around 100 per year compared to our comparable number of 170-180 in a population of 70 million. I spent three intensive days sharing with Kiwi colleagues details of how our system works and what makes it effective. It gives a very different perspective on our health and safety system when you see how others around the world seek to emulate what we do. No-one makes jokes about 'elf 'n' safety out there.

But the most sobering experience of my whole visit was the visit to Christchurch. I first visited just over eight years ago on holiday so had clear memories of its beautiful gardens and architecture. I'd seen images immediately after the earthquakes on TV but they did little to prepare me for what I saw.

One hundred and eighty five people died in the Christchurch earthquake in February 2011. Christchurch cathedral didn't just lose its spire - it lies in ruins. Most of the central business district is being demolished and more than 70 per cent of the city's hotels have either been demolished or condemned.

Up to 100,000 homes need to be refurbished or rebuilt. Many still don't have sewerage systems and there are chemical toilets everywhere - 18 months after the last major quake. Nobody knows how many people have moved out of the city and whether they've gone for good or will come back one day.

I was asked to talk to them about the Olympic Big Build project in London and how such outstanding safety performance was achieved. New Zealand's Minister for Labour Kate Wilkinson, her officials and the contractors who will be pulling down the ruins and rebuilding the city said that the story was inspirational and gave them determination to create a similar culture in the massive rebuild programme which they now face.

Many people can feel proud of what we achieved at the Olympic Park but if we can also inspire and support people in Christchurch to recover from what has happened to them it will be even more worthwhile. My contribution felt small compared to the challenge that lies ahead for them but I was very glad to have the opportunity to share our learning with them - it really is a small world.

2016-04-13