Dioxin case highlights OSH failings in occupational health, says expert

Sep 23, 2004

A public health expert says the New Plymouth dioxin case shows that the Government no longer cares about occupational health.

Professor Neil Pearce, director of Massey University’s Centre for Public Health Research, said workers’ health at places such as New Plymouth’s Dow chemical plant had dropped off the Government’s agenda since the Labour Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Service (OSH) took over the role from the Ministry of Health in 1991.

“The final stage in this process of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ occurred recently when OSH was quietly disestablished and incorporated into the workplace group of the Department of Labour, together with the Industrial Relations Service and the Department of Labour’s ACC responsibilities,” he said.

Occupational Health Nurses’ Association president Barbara Haywood said the association was concerned at OSH’s “diminishing medical and nursing expertise”.

But Labour Department Deputy Secretary Andrew Annakin said OSH now spent more on occupational health after years of concentrating on safety.

“Internationally and historically, occupational safety has been dealt with more effectively than occupational health,” he said.

“There are a number of reasons for this, including the difficulty of measuring occupational health impacts and their long-term nature.

“But the tide is turning, and has been for some time. OSH is strengthening its capacity to deal with these issues and was recently allocated $1.8 million additional government funding over four years to carry out research into occupational issues.”

Dr Pearce, who leads a $520,000 study into possible chemical poisoning of sawmill workers, said OSH “simply doesn’t have the resources or the expertise” to cope with situations like the Dow case.

“You can’t do effective prevention of occupational disease unless your team includes healthcare professionals who know about health and disease.” But Mr Annakin said OSH employed specialist healthcare professionals in all its offices experienced in dealing with occupational diseases and disorders.

He said the three key workplace issues were all health-related: airborne substances, manual handling accidents and illnesses, and “psychosocial factors such as high workloads, bullying and violence”.

By Simon Collins | nzherald.co.nz  | Sep 23, 2004
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