Occupational Health Action Plan to 2013
4. The next ten years
Occupational diseases frequently have a long latency period, meaning it can take many years before evidence of health issues emerge. For this reason, we need to think beyond the timeframe of this Action Plan about ways of improving occupational health over the longer term
Occupational health issues have a much lower profile in the public view than safety ones. There is a need to raise the profile of these issues in the minds of workers and their families, managers, and health professionals. This should include being conscious of health hazards at work and the importance of taking active steps to reduce exposure because of the long latency period of many occupational diseases. While many of the actions in this Plan will make a good start (see 3.4 for example), a longer term view will be needed over the next ten years to improve general awareness amongst New Zealanders.
The design of workplaces, jobs, plant, and equipment (including personal protective equipment ‘PPE’) is an important focus for the future. An essential element of good design is matching the workplace layout and design to the physical attributes of the worker. For example, attention at design stage to reducing machine noise will have a greater impact on reducing hearing loss than the use of PPE.
In addition, designs for plant and technology that are based on anthropometric data that is not relevant to the target population may lead to occupational disease, injury or death. For example, safety equipment that is based on “average” body size for men may expose women working in non-traditional occupations to an increased health and safety risk. Accurate anthropometric data for the New Zealand population is important for ensuring that designers, architects and suppliers of plant, technology, safety clothing and equipment can play their part in ensuring the highest possible standards of health and safety.
Although progress in this area is a long term proposition, the groundwork can and should start now. See action 3.3 in the previous section as an example.
Maintaining employee health and wellbeing is seen as critical for reducing the lost productivity as a result of absence from work and facilitating the continued labour market participation of skilled workers. Health issues are the most common reasons for early and unplanned exit from the labour force.
In the face of an ageing population and international labour shortages, maintaining personal health will become increasingly important for retaining a skilled ageing workforce.
Over recent years, a strong evidence base has been built that demonstrates close links between working and the physical and mental health of employees. In the UK, Dame Carole Black’s Working for a Healthier Tomorrow provided a comprehensive review of this evidence and has been influential in shaping debate and public policy. It is clear that unemployment and absence from work for long periods of time - as a result of illness or disability - cause further harm to health and wellbeing. A number of studies have demonstrated that working can reverse the negative health effects of unemployment, and can also assist in the process of rehabilitation from ongoing illness and injury.
In 2011, the New Zealand Government signed up to the Consensus Statement of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians and the Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine entitled Realising the Health Benefits of Work. This statement contains a number of recommendations for government, employers and health professionals. There is now a need to consider how to give effect to these recommendations in a way that contributes to the development of evidence-based policy and treatment approaches.
 Anthropometric data includes information on height, weight, body part dimensions, strength, flexibility, endurance and psychological skills and capacities.