Disease is a greater workplace threat
New Zealands preoccupation with
workplace accidents overlooks the fact that six times as many people
may be dying from workplace-related diseases, says a Massey researcher.
Dave McLean, a Research fellow at the Centre for Public Health Research,
has just completed a major study of mortality and cancer incidence
in New Zealand pulp and paper mill workers.
The study of 8,456 workers was part of a larger International Agency
for Research on Cancer collaborative study of almost 60,000 workers
in 12 countries.
The study has shown no overall increase in mortality from cancer
or other causes, although there should be some concern
over the small increase in lung cancer associated with certain exposures
in the industry, such as sulphur dioxide, talc and pulp and paper
Mr McLean says although these results are better than expected,
the fact remains that workers are continuing to die from workplace-related
diseases at an alarming rate. With the exception of asbestos, work-related
exposures are seldom isolated as causes of death. Smoking is invariably
blamed and hard evidence about other sources, such as exposure to
chemicals, is thin on the ground.
The point is that not many studies such as this one have been
done in New Zealand, he says of his latest research, which
was initiated by Centre director, Professor Neil Pearce.
People dont have a perception of disease risks in the
workplace, the very strong emphasis is always on safety. Most industries
are relatively good at controlling safety hazards, but little effort
goes into disease.
The focus is always on accidental deaths on construction sites,
but about 50 people die in such a way each year, while another three
or four hundred probably die of cancer as a result of exposure to
chemicals in their workplace.
Mr McLean says he would like to make a plug for real science to
be applied to these health-in-the-workplace issues, because the
public perception is not necessarily in step with the reality.
A recent European study has revealed that one in four EU workers
are exposed to recognised carcinogens in the workplace. Some of
this is due to environmental exposures that are not a problem in
New Zealand, such as radon gas, yet our level of exposure is still
Mr McLean says work-related disease risk should also be given high
priority as new industries come on line.
Were hearing a great deal about the ability of the biotechnology
industries to turn a dollar, for example, yet part of this knowledge
economy should also be about understanding the risks they may pose
to their workforce.