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Massey Magazine Issue 13 November 2002

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Dave McLean

Disease is a greater workplace threat than safety

New Zealand’s 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 dust.

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 don’t 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 very significant.”

Mr McLean says work-related disease risk should also be given high priority as new industries come on line.

“We’re 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.”

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