Your employees might be safe, but how is their health?

While horrific accidents and workplace deaths tend to grab the headlines,15 times as many New Zealanders each year die of work-related diseases.
Is your business focusing on safety and forgetting about the ‘health’ part of the Health and Safety at Work Act?

While New Zealand’s corporate sector has undoubtedly upped its game on the safety of its workers in recent years, it seems the same cannot be said for the health or ill health of employees.
As well as the estimated 600 to 900 people who die each year of work-related illness, the government’s workplace health and safety regulator WorkSafe New Zealand says that there are around a further 30,000 people who develop serious, but non-fatal, work-related ill-health such as noise-induced hearing loss or non-fatal lung diseases. WorkSafe says many more cases are unreported.

And it is costing New Zealand money too. WorkSafe says $2.4 billion is the estimated cost of work-related diseases to New Zealand per year and $120 million is the estimated annual cost of absences workers attribute to work-related ill-health.
Chris Jones, WorkSafe’s manager, strategy in the strategy and performance group is an articulate advocate for WorkSafe’s strategic plan for work-related health called “Healthy Work”. This outlines its plan for a New Zealand where, ultimately, fewer people experience work-related ill-health.

WorkSafe is aiming to embed “significant and sustainable improvements in work-related health and health-related safety risk management across the health and safety system”, according to its strategic plan.
Jones told Management that the thousands of people who develop ill health through their work, won’t all necessarily die from it but it does impact on their ability to work and/or their quality of life.
And it’s not always obviously high risk areas that come to the fore. Workers in the outdoors might be exposed to the likelihood of skin cancer; exposure to dust on a construction site might lead to lung conditions. In hotels cleaners may be exposed to chemicals; in the healthcare sector nurses may be doing a lot of heavy lifting which leads to joint pain.
 Jones says people don’t realise the breadth of the issue and WorkSafe has been very clear that it needs business to focus on things that are causing significant problems. This is going to be an area of focus for WorkSafe in the future.
Work-related health risks generally fall into five categories.

  • Physical risks – for example, exposure to workplace noise may lead to noise-induced hearing loss.
  • Chemical risks – exposure to solvents may lead to occupational asthma.
  • Biological risks – exposure to animal bacteria may lead to sudden and severe illnesses.
  • Ergonomic risks – repeated lifting of heavy or bulky items may lead to low back pain.
  • Psychosocial risks – bullying at work may lead to work-related stress.

The strategic plan also notes that health-related safety risks have the potential to lead to safety incidents and acute harm. In general, they fall into one of four categories:

  • Sensory risks – for example, changes in a worker’s hearing or eyesight may prevent them from correctly or quickly identifying and reacting to a workplace risk.
  • Impairment risks – fatigue may lead to reduced concentration.
  • Mobility risks – physical frailty may prevent a worker from moving out of the way of an oncoming vehicle.
  • Incapacity risks – i.e. an unknown or poorly controlled heart condition may lead to a worker suddenly losing consciousness while involved in a safety-critical task.

Jones says that in general the maturity of most organisation on how they manage health risks is far less than that of how they manage safety risks. Safety is something people intrinsically appreciate better compared to health risks.
He also points out that under the Health and Safety at Work Act health is as important as safety.
WorkSafe’s strategy aims to get businesses to put more focus on the health component and recognise there is another side to the legislation that is equally important.
Asked about the corporate sector in New Zealand he says WorkSafe is seeing a growing recognition of the importance of this area but there is a danger that companies will focus on “wellness” and the management of lifestyle issues like obesity or diabetes.

“We often see organisations that are focused on health promotion activity encouraging workers to walk more, sleep better or eat more healthily.  But they are not asking ‘what are the things people are doing because of our business that might affect their health’.”

He says with dust as a factor, a business might insist workers wear protective clothing and glasses or if they have noisy equipment, might be suggesting ear muffs.
And while personal protective gear can be useful it tends to be the first thing companies think of when they should be assessing the risk and looking to eliminate it or minimise it.
Jones says that WorkSafe expects businesses to eliminate or minimise risk, so far as is reasonably practicable, and that PPE shouldn’t be the first or only option considered. So if a company has noisy equipment it would need to consider if it could isolate that piece of equipment or replace it with quieter equipment; or be asking how they can emit less dust rather than just asking workers to work with a mask on.

He says businesses have a legal requirement to monitor work-related hazards and control risks and to know how effective  these measures are.

 Businesses are required to monitor the health of their workers, by ways such as offering a lung test or a hearing test, and are then are required to monitor the workplace itself to monitor how noisy or dusty it is.
Jones says WorkSafe’s research shows many organisations need to improve in this area.
It can also take 10 to 20 years for an employee to develop a health problem and this is why WorkSafe now has health as a focus.

“Wellness activities are fine but not at the expense of health measures.” And companies need to start at the health protection side, not at well-being.
In essence a business must understand the risks to workers, minimise that risk and monitor it.  


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