While you may be familiar with your workplace’s safety procedures – helmets, closed-toe shoes and fire drills, for example – staying well at work is not just about reducing accidents. Ben Fahy talks to WorkSafe about the importance of work-related health.
What is work?
It’s a deep philosophical question, and one that has created great political and social division. Some believe it’s a curse on the working class, while others believe it provides a pathway to happiness and meaning. Some believe you’ll never work a day in your life if you do something you love, others say following your passion is particularly bad career advice. But whatever your position on the work continuum – from necessary evil to spiritual calling; from working from home to working in the factory – pretty much everyone can agree that you shouldn’t be dying at or as a result of work.
What’s WorkSafe and why does it exist?
WorkSafe is New Zealand’s workplace regulator. That means they’re tasked with making sure employers are looking after both the health and safety of workers. When things go wrong – or more importantly, before things go wrong – they’re the ones who need to know so they can step in and keep people safe.
It was established after the Pike River mine explosion around seven years ago, with its initial focus largely being the reduction of workplace accidents. Just as ACC has evolved to focus on the prevention of accidents, however, so too is WorkSafe increasing its focus on the prevention of long-term harm, something it calls work-related health.
What’s work-related health?
If health & safety was a popular musical duo, safety would be the lead singer, and health would be on bass. Safety is more visible and about the here and now – think risk assessments, hi-vis vests, scaffolding, hard hats etc – but health is in the background, often out of sight and mind, but crucial nonetheless.
In the past year and a bit, Covid-19 galvanised the world’s scientists and politicians who came together to find solutions. Climate change, however, is a longer-term threat that has only recently started to be taken seriously, even though it may eventually be more serious. The same thing exists with workplace accidents vs work-related health: it’s hideous if someone dies on the job, and that often leads to big headlines. But someone having to stop work because their job has made them sick, before suffering at home and dying should be considered just as hideous.
Humans are typically very bad at assessing risk. We’re all scared of sharks, when we should really be scared of avocados, showers and touch rugby. WorkSafe stats show that a worker is 15 times more likely to die from a work-related disease than from a workplace accident and work-related health deaths are estimated at 750-900 a year. There are an estimated 5,000-6,000 hospitalisations each year due to work-related ill-health, and it’s well-understood by experts that employment (along with education and housing) is a key determinant of people’s health. The problem is that it’s not that well-understood by employers or workers. WorkSafe is trying to increase that understanding.
Why work-related health is important
In the past 10 years there were slightly more than 500 deaths as the result of a workplace accident.
But every year more than that die from work-related health causes. If New Zealand did nothing from where we are now, at least 7,500 people will die from work-related health causes in the next decade.
Harm from work-related health can take a long time to become apparent, or it can be apparent right now and lead to long-term harm if not addressed. Being exposed to carcinogens and airborne risks can cause cancers, respiratory illness and other illnesses, but equally being in a stressful or noisy environment can cause mental ill-health which can significantly impact a person without them necessarily recognising it.
According to WorkSafe, evidence shows that a business with a focus on good work-related health practices will perform better and do better work than their competitors.
Treating your staff well, protecting them from unnecessary harm and taking care of each other is all part of how you create a good culture. And businesses that value the health of their staff increasingly have an advantage when it comes to recruitment.
What are the main work-related health issues?
There are three focus areas – carcinogens and airborne risks, mentally healthy work, and musculoskeletal disorders.
Carcinogens and airborne risks are things like asbestos, crystalline silica, welding fumes, and other dusts, gases and vapours. A lot of these hazards can increase the risk of cancer and other diseases in workers, so this is harm which is preventable now, but affects people later in their lives – often well after they’ve left their job.
Mentally healthy work is an important area impacting on staff. WorkSafe has specific guidance around bullying, sexual harassment and managing stress and it is also focused on encouraging stronger systems of support in the workplace through engaging with workers, encouraging more caring cultures, and effective leadership.
Bones and muscles can also take a beating from work. Many people are aware of things like how you handle heavy loads but if you’re saying to your workers “bend your knees and stick your butt out when you lift” but they are lifting heavy objects 200 times a day, that’s a health issue that needs to be addressed.
There are plenty of other long-term risks, such as deafness from working in a noisy factory or with noisy equipment, skin cancer from outdoor work or carpal tunnel syndrome from overuse. And, in many cases the physical and the mental overlap, because your health affects your wellbeing and being unable to work due to injury or ill health can become a serious psychological issue.
How will they improve things?
The concepts of worker rights, health and safety and even ideas like weekends, annual leave or sick leave, have evolved over time and have become accepted as completely normal.
WorkSafe believes the responsibility to keep workers safe, both from accidents and long-term physical and mental health issues, follows the arc of progress and, in time, will also be seen as completely normal. This is a natural process of New Zealand growing up as a country. It’s about showing workplaces that they need to take better care of their workers and their whānau and need to move away from “she’ll be right” or “it’s just part of the job”.
Like any regulator, WorkSafe uses a combination of approaches to change behaviour. While the fear of fines and prosecution can be a very good motivator for compliance, as seen when directors and officers were made able to be held liable for health and safety failings in 2016, fear doesn’t always lead to great engagement.
Most businesses want to do the right thing and protect their workers and Worksafe has good guidance in a lot of areas to help with that. It’s particularly conscious of small to medium enterprises, and making sure the information is able to be understood and implemented by them, rather than having to hire someone to come in and tell them what to do.
It also wants to use social pressure to push employers and employees in the right direction. In the past, behaviour change was often based around shame and fear. Old road safety campaigns attempting to reduce drink driving or speeding, for example, often showed terrible, gruesome things happening to irresponsible people. But eventually those terrible things started to lose their impact. So many government departments tweaked the approach and these days it’s much more common for behaviour change campaigns to reinforce positive behaviour.
WorkSafe recently launched a campaign celebrating workers who speak up when they detect the potential for a workplace accident and likened them to danger-sensing meerkats. In some workplaces it might not be cool to be safe. But ensuring that workers put on their earmuffs, apply sunscreen every day if they’re outside or use protective equipment creates habits, and the cumulative effect of small things being done regularly helps improve people’s health in the long-term. That requires awareness of the issues reasons for taking these precautions – there might be religious, cultural reasons for workers to use different avenues and enforcing those rules often comes down to good leadership means employers need to understand their workers are not all the same, and be responsive to the specific needs of each.
Are some jobs just more unsafe than others?
Today, the world of work is vast, from sedentary keyboard warriors to manual labourers, and everything in between. And while some jobs are more dangerous than others, any job can have an impact on your health.
While it’s reasonable to assume asbestos removal is more dangerous than an office job, it depends. If the asbestos removal workers have the right gear, training and processes, but someone in an office is exposed to asbestos because of an irresponsible building owner or manager, then those people are actually being exposed to more risk.
And while some jobs undoubtedly take more of a physical toll than others, anyone can be affected in a toxic environment where people feel psychologically unsafe. The kind of work is irrelevant in that case.
New research shows that those who work nights for years on end are more likely to have health problems. And as our understanding of the health impacts of employment grows, we can try to mitigate those dangers.
Are some people at more risk than others?
The people who are the most vulnerable likely to experience workplace accidents and long-term health issues are often the ones who are most vulnerable in general. Workers with English as a second language, migrant workers, gig economy workers, or those who take manual labour roles for cash in hand often sacrifice their bodies – and minds – in order to provide the basics for themselves or their families.
This is an international issue, of course. Many rich nations depend on cheap migrant labour to keep their economies humming and many migrants depend on jobs in developed nations to provide for their families, but as we saw during Covid-19, essential workers (who were previously not seen as essential workers) were often forced to put themselves at greater risk for very little financial reward. One of the goals of WorkSafe is to reduce inequity in the workplace and, in some cases where employers don’t take the appropriate steps to protect their staff, that’s where the law of the land comes into play.
How does success get measured?
The perception is that many of these changes businesses might need to make to look after their workers’ health are expensive and technical. But WorkSafe says it’s more about trying to get businesses to think about this as a collective issue and see it as part of their continuous improvement. The costs that businesses are putting on the health system – and the pain they cause people later in life as a result of lax policies – need to be considered.
Measuring how much harm you’ve avoided is almost impossible, so it needs to be about businesses communicating with workers to hear what’s going well, how people are engaging, whether employees feel comfortable raising issues and how they are worked out.
Work-related health is an ongoing commitment, not just a box-ticking wellness week. And the key message is that everyone in New Zealand, no matter their job, should get to go home from work healthy and safe – either at the end of the day or at the end of their career.