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Massey Magazine Issue 13 November 2002

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Labour Minister Margaret Wilson and CPHR Director Professor Neil Pearce.

Work-related injury targeted

A Symposium on Priorities in Occupational Health and Safety last week provided an opportunity for key players within the research, policy development and implementation sectors to discuss co-operation to improve New Zealand’s poor track record in work-related injury and disease.

The symposium was organised by the University’s Centre for Public Health Research, in partnership with Occupational Safety and Health.

At the Museum Building venue, public servants, university researchers, politicians, unions, employers and international experts pooled their knowledge in advance of the Government’s contentious Health and Safety in Employment Amendment Bill.

Labour Minister Margaret Wilson – who first complimented Centre Director Professor Neil Pearce for developing a programme covering such important topics – spoke of the Bill’s principles of good faith, consultation and partnership, a move away from the present adversarial and litigious approach.

“We are fighting against a culture in which death in the workplace is not seen as being as culpable as a death in other situations like the road.”

Ms Wilson said existing legislation has been watered down within the “intensely democratic process” that is Parliament, and didn’t go far enough to encourage a strong culture of workplace safety.

She promised comprehensive coverage of all workplaces, full participation involving co-operation between employers and employees, and a range of appropriate enforcement tools that demonstrate the “seriousness with which human life and well-being should be taken in the workplace”.

She also noted a lack of accurate data on what is causing workplace fatalities. “We are taking steps to address this lack of knowledge, so proactive prevention can be targeted intelligently.”

The Minister has previously indicated her need for policy developers to anchor their recommendations in research-based data. Various speakers at the symposium highlighted the dearth of accurate information, several describing ways in which gaps are being filled. These projects include the OSH Occupational Cancer Register and the HRC/OSH/ACC Joint Research Portfolio on occupational health and safety.

Wellington School of Medicine researcher Dr Phillippa Gander described how legislative changes covering stress and fatigue would impact on the workplace. Case studies and surveys have already revealed the significance of the problem, including lack of sleep and fatigue-related errors. Dr Gander said workplace fatigue is a complex problem and mounting a comprehensive preventative programme will be difficult because most small businesses cannot afford it.

Dunedin School of Medicine researcher Dr John Langley spoke of the “poor job” being done in identifying workplace fatalities. His study over 1985-94 revealed 820 deaths. The OSH figure for the same period was 327, while ACC recorded 513. Work related traffic fatalities could be as high as 40 percent of all workplace deaths, but are not being recorded. No common database exists.

Keynote speaker Professor Jorma Rantanen, the director of the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health, noted that while Finland is often held up to New Zealand as an example in economic development, this has been achieved in conjunction with a proactive position on occupational health and safety. He said major corporations now control 50 percent of the world economy and the “social dimension” of those global operations has become a critical issue. He also drew attention to the implications of the global trend towards ageing workforces and the consequent challenges for the occupational health sector.

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