Understanding precepts for Māori worker safety – the development of the Mahi Haumaru Model

Kia ora – a largely off the cuff piece.

For the last few months I have been thinking about a possible model for understanding what good Māori health and safety could look like. I aimed for something that portrayed a simple three part structure that could resonate with Māori.

The Mahi Haumaru (Work Safe) Model has a long way to go, even as its architect, I’m unsure what it will finally look like, but at least it’s a peg in the ground.

In this post I discuss one of its elements – Tūpato.

Mahi Haumaru Model


Kia tūpato, tūpoto or matawhāiti is generally accepted as meaning to be careful or cautious. The cautious nature of Māori, politically, mentally and physically is documented.

Being cautious is part of Māori culture and atua or gods are some of its earliest artefacts. Tangaroa is one of the great Māori and wider Polynesian gods. He is the god of the sea, rivers, lakes and all life within them. He is venerated around Polynesia as Tangaroa-nui, Tangaroa-ra-vao, Tangaroa-mai-tu-rangi, Tangaroa-a-mua, Tangaroa-a-timu, and Tangaroa-a-roto, Taʾaroa, Tangaloa and Tangaroa, and Kanaloa. And while Christianity has displaced indigenous deities, Tangaroa survives due to the ongoing importance of the sea to Polynesian communities. As such, the practices of Tangaroa also survive, karakia or prayers to Tangaroa and his many guises are still practiced as are rāhui that prohibits seafood gathering in recognition of a sea fatality or to protect certain fishing grounds from being over used.

Tangaroa has a reputation of being omnipresent which promotes the need to be cautious. The whakatauki or proverb, Tangaroa Piiri Whare or Tangaroa is hiding in the house implies that Tangaroa is invisible and hears all; to be careful as the “walls have ears”. This is reiterated in another kiwaha; Ko Tangaroa ara rau (Tangaroa of many paths).

Skeptics may assign Tangaroa and other cultural artifacts that reinforce Māori being cautious to the history books, but here’s three reasons to reconsider:

  1. In 2013 a Statistics New Zealand national survey reported, 373,000 (70 percent) Māori adults said it was at least somewhat important for them to be involved in things to do with Māori culture. Māori culture including a want of it, therefore resonates with Māori.
  2. Story telling or narratives is recognized as a good way to promote health and safety. It seems practical to utilize stories such as Tangaroa Piiri Whare to unlock and motivate Māori or indeed other workers, to become more cautious.
  3. I recall Drew Rae saying something alike, don’t take the uncertainty away from health and safety, it makes people think they’re safe and similarly Todd Conklin commenting, you have learn to be unsafe in order to be safe. Safety can be measured, managed and therefore audited. It’s an ideal situation that assumes workers are safe as long as they play within the safety of the sand box. Caution on the other hand, is more of a daily journey towards achieving safety. It is caution that can help keep Māori workers safe not safety by itself – we’ve forgotten that and concealed it with safety clutter.

“Kia tūpato” use to be commonplace until it was displaced by “safety”. For Māori workers, caution is quite possible their most intuitive and least path of resistance to attaining a Safety-II outcome.

There’s definitely a place for safety as an outcome but given the current disparity in workplace harms, there’s a pressing case to reprise the use of “caution” as a path to achieving safety for Māori workers.

Instead of safety or safer I think that tūpato or caution is more apt and relevant for Māori workers. It maybe a simple case that Māori workers are better at behaving cautiously than at adhering to safety systems that curb caution. Leaders especially employers, could consider that dynamic and recognize more cautious behaviors into their systems and practices but I guess that’s something I will need to find out as part of my research.

As always I value in your feedback. In the next post I’ll discuss another element of the Mahi Haumaru (Work Safe) Model “Manaaki”.




The migration of humankind, specifically indigenous groups, is well-known—from the crossing of the Beringia ice bridge to voyages across the Pacific. Exploration is a tricky business. Do you think indigenous people, perhaps your ancestors, understood the value of health and safety?

I’m talking about animals that ate you, famines that starved you, volcanoes that incinerated you and ice ages that froze you—not your typical working-at-heights day.

Do you think they assessed risks before venturing out? Did they train and prepare? Did they use practices to keep safe? Did they try to stay healthy as they crossed the unknown? I’m going to use this blog to:

  • Describe indigenous safety culture and;
  • Moot examples of indigenous knowledge that can inform modern health and safety practices.

If you’d like to help with this or simply want to find out more, then please follow my blog. I plan to run it for at least three years, to coincide with my professional doctorate studies. Eventually information will become more rigorous but at this stage I’m focused on creating a presence.

In this post I am going to cover why I think indigenous culture and knowledge is relevant to health and safety today.

Developing safety culture is a long game and indigenous peoples are its longest players.

The Australian Aboriginal peoples have occupied the same land continuously longer than any other human group. Findings suggest they are the direct descendants of migrants who left Africa up to 75,000 years ago and the earliest indigenous peoples, dating back 60,000 years. As migrants then explorers in their own lands, they are quite possibly the earliest practitioners of health and safety. They remain attuned with their natural surroundings and for the most part, are able to live safely within it. Here is my first point:

Indigenous peoples have had thousands of years to cultivate their health and safety knowledge. Their practices maybe faded, obscured or outdated but the reasoning may still prove useful today.

Imagery becomes important when you try to persuade someone of something that’s intangible. It’s easy to picture indigenous peoples as hunters and gatherers leading simple village lives or wearing hula skirts surrounded by palm trees. Its less common to imagine them as disenfranchised at-risk workers wearing hard hats. This year, the New Zealand Government reported indigenous Maori workers are 44 per cent more likely to be injured at work than the general population. This disparity is not uncommon for indigenous peoples which brings me to my second point:

Indigenous peoples are the among the most at-risk workers in the world.

I’m not meaning or demeaning the extremes of exploited workers. Those situations require more than a cultural nudge. I am instead, referring to the sometimes difficult to see worker who is reticently indigenous and employed in a labor intensive job by reasonable people. The workplace adopts conventional health and safety systems that leaves the worker less than interested because the systems fail to be practically understood and the overall culture shows little empathy towards the worker. In this case both the workplace and worker are disadvantaged and the workplaces health and safety system is under-performing. This leads me to my third and final point.

Certain workplaces can be made safer if their health and safety culture and systems are attuned with relevant indigenous culture and knowledge.

I’m also hypothesizing that other non-indigenous workers such as new migrants, those with similar socioeconomic backgrounds can affiliate with health and safety cultures and systems that reflect indigenous culture and knowledge. I’m alluding to workplace diversity but my thinking has yet to be shaped so I’ll visit that subject later. In the meantime you may have some ideas?

Our friend in the above image is working. He’s hunting. I doubt he’s bothered filling out any risk assessment card, but I’m certain he knows where those mammoth will go and how they will meet their end. I’m equally sure his tribe shares his thinking and understands their tasks; when to hide, when to move, where to go and where to avoid. That kind of thinking doesn’t come together overnight. It’s the product of hundreds of years of knowledge.

Being trampled by woolly mammoth doesn’t really get a mention in near-miss reports these days but the thinking remains the same, knowing your risks and keeping safe.

In my next post I’ll offer a few examples of traditional indigenous knowledge and some scenarios of how they can inform modern health and safety practices.