NEW ZEALAND: Work-related diseases are ‘significant’ problem

A concern over unacceptable levels of highly-visible work fatalities should not distract attention from the much greater toll of work-related diseases, the New Zealand Council of Trade Unions (NZCTU) has said.

The union body’s president, Richard Wagstaff, said an estimated 600 to 900 workers in the country died each year due to work-related diseases, with many others suffering from non-terminal illnesses caused by work.

“This has been a long-standing issue. Many work-related illnesses and diseases have a long latency period,” he said. “Others illnesses, such as work-related asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, have been an issue for a very long time despite personal protective equipment being available and relatively inexpensive.”

The National Occupational Health and Safety Advisory Committee (NOHSAC) estimated there were 17,000-20,000 new cases of work-related disease in New Zealand every year. Cancer, respiratory disease, noise related hearing loss, and ischaemic heart disease are some of the most common work-related chronic illnesses.

“Many of these diseases are as long-lasting in consequence as physical injuries that occur. Many are terminal,” and the union leader added that addressing the problem requires involvement of workers and their unions in assessing how to manage these risks.

“Workers are typically excluded from this assessment despite often having a wealth of knowledge of how to best manage the risks they are exposed to. Training workers and health safety representatives and promoting their ability to stop work if they feel unsafe is also an important step,” he said.