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Massey Magazine Issue 13 November 2002

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Examining occupational ill health

The burden of occupational ill-health within the New Zealand workplace will be the focus of a $383,000 study soon to be launched by the Centre for Public Health Research.

The study, funded by the Health Research Council, will look at the current and future burdens of occupational ill health, and the current and emerging hazards contributing to this burden.

Centre Director, Professor Neil Pearce, says the HRC is funding the research because it recognises that more attention needs to be paid to occupational health.

“ Historically, most attention has been given to occupational injury, because that’s mainly what the ACC compensates people for,” says Professor Pearce.

“ And Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) within the Department of Labour has also had a particular focus on injury. While this work has been important, it’s also meant that health in the workplace hasn’t received the attention it deserves.”

About 100 people die each year from occupational injuries in New Zealand. Professor Pearce says by applying overseas models, it could be estimated that at least another 900 are dying from other factors. These include various occupational cancers, along with occupation-related heart disease, respiratory disease and renal disease.

“ All of these causes of work-place fatalities, many times more important than injuries, have not received the attention they deserve in New Zealand,” he says.

“ And we still don’t have an accurate handle on the problem in terms of the numbers of deaths, cancer registrations or hospital admissions – or even which industries have the biggest problems. Until we have this information, we can’t see the big picture and make the necessary policy changes.”

Professor Pearce says the study will bring together three research groups within the University – the Centre for Public Health Research and the Sleep/Wake Research Centre in Wellington and the Centre for Ergonomics, Occupational Safety and Health at Palmerston North.

“ Together, these three groups cover the occupational health field very well. Our focus at the CPHR is on non-communicable diseases, the Sleep/Wake Centre is looking at fatigue and sleep disorders and the Centre for Ergonomics will be looking at those workplace issues which lead to musculoskeletal problems.”

The core of the project will be a survey of 5000 workers chosen at random. This will cover their work history and their physical, chemical and biological exposures in the workplace.

Once this overview has been established, phase two projects will include more detailed exposure assessments in selected key industries, and estimates of the numbers of deaths, cancer registrations and hospital admissions due to each occupational exposure.

Professor Pearce says the study is timely because the recent passing of the Health & Safety in Employment Bill put increased emphasis on occupational health. The establishment by Labour Minister Margaret Wilson of a new National Occupational Health & Safety Advisory Committee, chaired by Professor Pearce, will help with the development of policy changes and effective interventions.

Professor Pearce says while this new approach will initially impact on the bottom line for industry and business, the overseas experience, from countries such as Finland, shows that good health and safety practice is a wise investment.

“ Companies that follow best practice save ten times as much as they spend on health and safety programmes, so it’s in everyone’s interests for us to do better in these areas.”

The survey will be repeated at five-yearly intervals to provide an ongoing progress assessment.

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