Annually, an estimated 750-900 people die from work-related health issues in New Zealand. Approximately 250 deaths are work-related lung cancers, 90 deaths are from asbestos-related mesothelioma, and 25 breast cancer deaths can be linked to the ill effects of shift work.

A recent study by The Lancet Oncology highlights concerns around the standard of diagnosis and treatment being offered in New Zealand compared to similar countries. But WorkSafe New Zealand says that a greater focus needs to be placed on prevention, and protecting workers’ health from exposures linked to cancer made a priority.

WorkSafe General Manager Strategy and Performance Jude Urlich says a worker is 15 times more likely to die from a work-related disease than from a workplace accident.

“More harm is caused every year by work-related cancer, than all the injuries and deaths from workplace incidents. The effects of a workplace accident are often immediately visible. But the effects of exposure to a work-related health risk may not become visible for days, months or even decades.

“Workplaces need to be focusing on prevention of work-related cancers through reducing worker exposure to asbestos, diesel engine exhaust, silica dust, wood dust, fumes or vapours from some metals and industrial chemicals, unhealthy working hours, and other risks that have been linked to cancers.”

The list of cancers that have been linked to work is long but includes lung cancer, mesothelioma, and melanoma.

Ms Urlich said that WorkSafe was in the early stages of developing a three-year action plan to reduce exposure to carcinogens at work. This will contribute to the Ministry of Health’s National Cancer Action Plan, which states that prevention of cancer could be the biggest contributor to improving overall cancer outcomes, as well as achieving equity.

“There are known, effective methods for preventing or significantly reducing exposure to most workplace carcinogens. These include eliminating or substituting carcinogens or processes that produce them, using effective ventilation systems, and reducing the amount of time workers spend doing work that may expose them to carcinogens. Personal protective equipment is a last resort and should not be the main method of protecting workers from carcinogens.”

Other key things to note about work-related health issues in New Zealand include the following:

  • The cost to New Zealand of cancer caused by work is at least $320 million each year in lost health alone.
  • There are an estimated 5,000-6,000 hospitalisations each year due to work-related ill health.
  • By law, businesses must manage both the health and safety risks caused by their work. That includes managing risks to mental health as well as physical health and safety.

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