Management of workplace health risks

Andy Loader one of our Board members has contributed the following article


Management of workplace health risks

When we look at the statistics on New Zealand’s workforce health risks we see a picture that should be of concern to all.

The most recent statistics show that over a 20-year period there has been a downward trend in injuries to workers.

But what has not been identified and measured as such is the statistics relating to injuries and fatalities from health risks in the workplace.

The best estimates that are currently available from Worksafe NZ state that they believe that there is between 600 & 900 deaths per year from exposure to health risks in New Zealand’s workplaces. 

Having an integrated approach to safety and risk management, identifying appropriate controls and ensuring that these are correctly implemented has proved not only effective for business performance but has also ensured that workplace safety is better than it has ever been.

We have not given the same priority to the management of health in the workplace as we do to safety, and yet ill health impacts not only on individual workers, but also on their families, friends and loved ones, their workplace and its productivity.

We should achieve a similar success for health risk management by applying the lessons learned from integrated safety principles.

Whilst many sources seem to confirm the huge numbers of short term and longer term chronic ill health problems are estimated to be attributed to workplace exposures, we tend to very poorly address health risk management in relation to workplace health and safety.

Although we believe that there are around 600 to 900 deaths each year caused by exposures at work, there has been generally slow progress towards proactively managing these risks, although examples of good practice are being seen now.

Chronic health conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and silicosis (to name just a few) are also still too commonly seen as a consequence of harmful workplace exposures.

Given that many of these health risks take a long time to show their effects on workers (e.g. asbestosis up to 30years to see the end result) this can often mask the need for action today. Can we be truly confident that our current approach isn’t leading another generation to early death, suffering and harm? 

Our knowledge and understanding of health risk factors in the workplace has improved over recent years, and there is growing recognition that some work activities can cause, or be a major contributor to, illnesses when previously these links had not been made.

Worksafe New Zealand have over the last couple of years had a strategy in relation to workplace health risks of ensuring all stakeholders are made aware of the terrible impact of occupational ill health and of ensuring that we have put in place management systems to prevent illnesses from workplace exposures to health risks.

However, there are various areas which are still poorly understood and thus poorly appreciated. As the boundaries between ‘work life’ and ‘home life’ are now less well defined, we need to understand and anticipate how these influence health risk management at work.

It is no longer acceptable to simply blame life outside the workplace for various illnesses. Whereas work used to be considered to begin and end at the workplace gate, the use of modern technology and the different ways of remotely working mean that health risks and their associated challenges can be moved continually between home and work.

The risks at work for many health conditions are often still not reduced sufficiently to prevent harm.

I believe that to effectively manage health risks at work should be no harder challenging or expensive than managing safety.  But since health risks from workplace exposures and their consequences are often not immediately apparent, the potential harm to health is not as well understood as that of accident prevention. Subsequently, health issues are often not addressed as thoroughly as they might be.

Changing the balance and improving health at work requires a change in our thinking about health and safety. Both health & safety should be considered together rather than individually. In both cases, identifying the hazards and risks is the first step followed by designing controls and implementing them.

We should realise that the development of chronic ill health is common in the working population, and that properly managing health risks at work is a starting point.

We should involve our workforce in developing a workable common sense approach to health management at work, based on the human component of the tasks being undertaken.

For example, it would be sensible to involve the workforce in the assessment of the job, and its associated hazards and strategies and actions to reduce risks as this approach would allow them to develop ownership of the policies and procedures that come from that assessment.

Developing a proactive and balanced approach to the management of health and safety at work, in which both health and safety are treated with equal priority, is the best way to ensure that the workforce is protected from both preventable injuries (safety) and illnesses (health).