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