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Putting worker health first

New Zealanders are estimated to be 13 times more likely to die from a work-related illness — eg diseases linked to shift work, or cancers from sun or asbestos exposure — than a workplace accident. What are you doing to keep your employees healthy?

Preventing workplace injuries is an important part of running a successful business — but many employers don’t consider the long-term and serious health problems their working conditions might cause.

“We focus our efforts on protecting people from injuries because we feel confident at spotting and managing immediate risks,” says Chris Jones, Manager Strategy at WorkSafe New Zealand. “We need the same risk management-focused approach to work-related health.”

Work-related health (external link) — WorkSafe New Zealand

600 to 900 New Zealanders die every year due to work-related diseases.

600 to 900 New Zealanders die every year due to work-related diseases.

A further thirty thousand people are hospitalised or make successful claims with ACC for serious illnesses caused by their working conditions each year. Many more go unreported.

Why care about work-related health?

By law, employers must protect their employees from work factors that could harm their health, such as from excessive noise, work-related stress and exposure to chemicals.  

Looking after your workers’ health also makes good business sense. “Keeping workers healthy helps to reduce absence levels and maintains high levels of productivity and engagement,” Jones says. It’s a part of being a caring and responsible employer.

What is work-related health?

“Employers should think about work-related health as a two-way relationship — how work can affect health, and how health can affect safety at work,” Jones says.

Some work factors that can lead to health problems include:

  • bullying
  • exposure to dust or asbestos
  • loud noises or vibration
  • repeat lifting
  • contact with animal bacteria.

Some health issues that could increase the chances of work accidents and incidents include:

  • changes in hearing or eyesight
  • fatigue
  • physical frailty
  • poorly controlled medical conditions.

Get more complete guidance (external link) on potential work-related health risks from WorkSafe.

How to manage health risks

1.  Identify the hazards

“It starts with engagement on the ground,” says Jones. “Ask workers what their health-related concerns are.”

Encourage your workers to have open and honest conversations about their health concerns.

“You need to know your workers,” says Jones. This means being aware of any health issues your employees have that might put them or others in danger at work.

You might also seek advice from a health and safety professional to make sure you’ve identified all the hazards.

2.  Assess the risks

Weigh up the risks by considering:

  • the likelihood of workers being exposed to the hazard
  • the consequences, both now and in the future, if exposure occurs.
It’s easy to underestimate the likelihood of a person’s health being harmed because of the length of time it takes for ill health to develop.

It’s easy to underestimate the likelihood of a person’s health being harmed because of the length of time it takes for ill health to develop.

If in doubt, seek the help of a trained professional.

3.    Eliminate or minimise risks

Your workers are more likely to suffer from ill-health if they are frequently exposed to the risks. So your plan should be geared around firstly eliminating, and if that’s not possible, reducing exposure to the specific hazards you and your workers have identified.

For example, if your employees are susceptible to work-related stress, your plan might include:

  • more flexible working conditions
  • reconsidering the roles and expectations of your team members
  • upskilling yourself in how to spot potential signs of stress in workers so you can help.

4. Monitor and improve

Keep track of your plan to make sure it’s working effectively. Use these results, as well as findings from any incidents or investigations, to continuously improve the way you manage risks.

WorkSafe provides tools and resources (external link)  on work-related health. An occupational hygienist or other health and safety professional can also help you come up with a plan to keep you and your workers healthy now and in the future.

There are many other voluntary measures you can take to promote your workers’ health and well-being.

There are many other voluntary measures you can take to promote your workers’ health and well-being.

Once you’ve got an effective approach to assessing, managing and monitoring work-related health risks, you could consider providing opportunities to improve the general health of workers, such as general health checks, keeping healthy food in the staffroom and subsidising counselling services.

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