A New Zealand employee is 10 times more likely to die form a work-related disease than a work-related accident. That’s a pretty clear signal that we need greater accountability and leadership around health and well-being.

Our MD Hamish Howard takes a closer look at what this means for business leaders and the importance of ensuring that workers not only get home safe, but are healthy too.

Ten, 10, X times – no matter how you express it that’s not a cheery fact.

During a recent Safeguard conference, I was reminded of renowned health and safety expert Lawrence Waterman’s phrase ‘we shout safety and whisper health’. This got me thinking about the reasons why, and the implications for New Zealand businesses.

Work-related health is not a new issue, and traditionally it has maintained a much lower profile than safety. Injuries caused by accidents are easily recordable and usually visible – it comes back to that journalist maxim “if it bleeds, it leads”. However, ill health due to asbestos, toxic fumes, noise or other hazards is much less clear cut.

This is mainly because there is usually a longer period between a worker’s exposure and then the subsequent effects on their health. This lowers the perception of risk and makes accountability difficult. There is also a perceived complexity of managing employee well-being; limited and unreliable data; and inadequate training. There can also be the added health complexity that comes with an ageing population of workers.

In short, its often easier for work-related health issues to remain unidentified or, at best, an ‘elephant in the room’, largely due to a general lack of awareness or it’s place in the ‘too hard’ basket.

The latest available data estimates up to 900 New Zealand workers die each year from diseases caused by work-related health risks. It’s also believed that a further 30,000 people develop non-fatal, work-related ill health each year, such as noise-induced hearing loss or lung disease. In a population as small as ours, this is worryingly significant.

It’s not rocket science – healthier workers are happier, and more productive.

But we are starting to see a renewed focus and effort in this area highlighted, in part, by government’s recently-released 10-year ‘Healthy Work’ strategic plan which aims to ensure employee health is given the same priority as physical safety.

Business leaders and workers are being encouraged to collaborate and recognise exposure and harm as opportunities to improve risk management.

We are also seeing many of our clients invest in voluntary measures to improve workforce well-being, going beyond the mandatory duties laid out in the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015.
Since we know our client’s well, we know it’s not just about compliance – these are New Zealanders who genuinely care about the health of their staff. For example, our client Hellers has ensured that ‘well-being’ is a core part of their Health and Safety Programme.

There is also the economics to consider.

Worksafe estimates that the average cost of lost productivity over a typical worker’s career for each case of work-related ill health is $44,500.

This is even more important when we consider the impact of people doing sedentary jobs – sitting for long periods, monitors at the wrong height, poor posture, and the list goes on. Humans were built to move, but we’re now moving less than ever before. International research shows that the average office worker spends about 80,000 hours of their working life sitting down, and 80 percent of those who work at a computer every day regularly suffer from health conditions.

It’s a silent epidemic that is costing businesses – let alone the well-being of New Zealand’s workforce.

How long it remains a silent epidemic is yet to be seen, but there is an armada of lawyers in the US looking to justify their existence and chase the next ambulance. So it’s only a matter of time before there are some class action suits around office bound workers who were ‘forced’ to sit at desks for 30-plus years and are now dealing with the health implications of that.

Improvements in technology and access to innovative health and safety systems will go some way to helping businesses better manage work-related health risks, and minimise the associated financial impact. The essential need for capturing, analysing and reporting data to better understand the frequency of exposure and subsequent impact on worker health has been greatly assisted by the development of ergonomic and productivity measurement software.

Yet the technology can only go so far. More important is proactive leadership and management, which means businesses must both acknowledge the issue and work together on solutions to improve work-related health.

So in many instances it’s literally a case of getting off your backside and starting to move.

Talk to us about how we can help you look beyond just ‘following the law’, and use systems and tools to create a not only a safe, but a happy and healthy workplace for your employees.