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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Workplace deaths count for nought

The tragic death of 15-year-old Inia Motu as he worked a school holiday job with his father at the Whitford Landfill near Auckland, the ninth workplace death this year, highlights the inadequacy of Government protection of manual workers on the job in New Zealand. Workers die while reports are written, and nothing changes.
Inia was driving a tractor when it rolled and crushed him. The machine had a roll cage but unless the young man was strapped in, he was at risk. Although a seat belt was fitted, he was not wearing it. The Department of Labour is investigating the training and supervision of the 15-year-old.
Of the nine people killed at work so far this year, seven of them were crushed to death.
The lack of urgency and efficacy of government departments charged with taking action to end the senseless slaughter of workers on the job is epitomised by the inadequacy of the information gathering systems that should be exposing the full extent of the problem.
According to 2002 reports by the Labour and Statistics departments, workplace and work-related deaths are under-reported because of the variety of agencies collecting the information. The Department of Statistics was charged with collating and publishing comprehensive data but this has not happened yet.
OSH investigated an average of 44 fatal workplace accidents per year in the years from 1990 to 1994, a period when a ten year independent joint study by Otago and Auckland university researchers published in 1999 found an average of 67 work related injury deaths of workers actually occurring. If bystanders were included in the tally the average was 74 deaths per year.
Taking just the workers, this means that over 34 per cent of workplace injury deaths were not investigated or counted by OSH. In fact, OSH does include deaths of "members of the public", i.e. bystanders, in its investigations so the under-reporting rate could have been as high as 40 per cent. (Note: There is a six-month overlap in the two sets of figures, but this does not materially affect the result of the comparison.) This under-reporting by OSH continues to this day.
This is because OSH does not deal with all work related injuries. Road deaths of truck drivers, for example, are investigated and counted by the Land Transport Safety Authority (LTSA). Deaths involving aircraft and ships are dealt with by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the Maritime Safety Authority (MSA) respectively. And some workplace deaths are just not reported to OSH.
Bob Hill, the then General Manager of OSH, wrote a hard-hitting article in 2002 describing how the cause of the 73 workplace fatalities the previous year varied; "they were strangled, burnt, shot, beaten, decapitated, electrocuted, drowned and crushed to death."
He wrote that: "The true cost of work-related death is under-acknowledged by New Zealanders." He referred to the 1999 university study, saying that it identified 820 work-related deaths from 1985 to 1994. Of these, he said, OSH recorded only 327 i.e. less than half. He says this shortfall was not just because many of the deaths fell out of OSH’s jurisdiction, but also because some deaths that should have been reported, were not.
To overcome this shortcoming in data collection, the Department of Statistics was appointed "Information Manager" under the Injury Prevention, Rehabilitation, and Compensation Act 2001 (IPRC Act) to collect information on workplace injury and death. The Act gives the Information Manager (i.e. the Department of Statistics) the power to require government agencies to provide injury related information. According to the Department of Labour, the Statistics department has the responsibility for compiling comprehensive injury data held by ACC, CAA, MSA, LTSA, NZHIS (New Zealand Health Information Service; a division of the Department of Health) and OSH.
However, the only statistics available from the Department are those from the ACC claims for workplace injury deaths. This data comes with the disclaimer that not all work-related fatalities have claims submitted for them and therefore not all work-related deaths are included. Included in the data, though, are some claims for workplace deaths due to injury caused by occupational disease, a whole other category of under-counted work related deaths.
According to the Statistics Department’s Injury Statistics 2001/2002 Work-related Injuries report, their research the previous year showed:
* No single agency collects information on all the work-related fatal injuries.
* Even when the information from all the relevant agencies is pooled, the total still falls short of the actual total.
* The undercount occurs in part because deaths from occupational diseases are under-represented. As well, some work-related fatal injuries are not identified or reported as such, in part because the element of work-relatedness is not recorded by the agency responsible.
On taking on the responsibility of co-ordinating the workplace fatal injury data collection in 2002, the Department of Statistics said it would take three years to "develop a system to manage injury information". An analyst in the Department told me, however, that "not much progress" had been made with the fatalities. He said a "scoping exercise" was underway to integrate the ACC information with that from the NZHIS and that there were no plans to collect information directly from other agencies like the CAA, the LTSA and the MSA because that information is supposedly available from the NZHIS.
The analyst said the Statistics department hoped to have the integration ACC and NZHIS data "up and running" by the middle of this year so we will have "a better idea" of the number of work-related deaths. However, he said, this information will still be suspect because of the "unreliability of coding" from ACC. The so-called E-Codes used to classify causes of death do not indicate if fatalities occurred at work. This has to be inferred. The independent university study published in 1999 had the same difficulty in utilising the raw NZHIS mortality data.
The lack of urgency in implementing the clear intention of the IPRC Act to collect accurate statistics on workplace injuries and deaths and the inadequacy of the scoping exercise being carried out is a scandal. To prevent accidents and deaths at work, accurate information is the first requirement. The Department of Statistics has been given the legislative power to require the information to be collected but seems reluctant to use that power.
At least six Government departments and agencies are involved in this fiasco; Health, Labour, Transport, Police, the NZ Defence Force and Statistics. The latter should be told by the Government to require the relevant agencies that all work-related injury deaths be recorded as such and the information passed on to the Department of Statistics. In other words "the element of work-relatedness" must be required to be recorded by any agency dealing with fatalities.
As Bob Hill concluded in his 2002 article:
"With ... comprehensive data, we will begin to see the true cost of workplace death and injury to New Zealand, and all parties concerned will have the information to better target action to minimise risks and prevent work-related injuries and deaths.
"Nobody should die in the workplace. The 73 deaths investigated by OSH last year (2001/02) are an appalling waste of life and a source of immense suffering to the victim’s families, friends and workmates, as well as an economic cost both to their employers and to the country as a whole."
In July 2003 the Government established a new independent advisory committee called predictably the National Occupational Health and Safety Advisory Committee (NOHSAC). This committee reports to the Associate Minister of Labour.
In its Second Annual Report in June 2005, NOHSAC estimated that there were 100 deaths from occupational injury and up to 1000 deaths from occupational disease in New Zealand each year. In the year from July 2004 to June 2005 OSH investigated only 46 fatal workplace accidents; again, less than half. The report said: "The Department of Labour and other government agencies do not know how many people die from work-related causes each year. More than 80 per cent of work-related deaths (mostly due to disease rather than injury) are not documented or reported, and are not investigated."
It goes on to describe the limitations of the present data collection methods and holds up Finland as an example New Zealand could follow. There, a separate agency has operated since 1945 collecting and disseminating information on occupational health and safety. It has 900 people either employed by or working for it. NOHSAC calls for a similar agency to be set up in New Zealand.
A 1996 government inquiry slated the "non-existence of meaningful (occupational health and safety) statistics, which has been the case for 20 years, (and) cannot be allowed to continue." Ten years later little has changed, in spite of the trial work done by the Department of Statistics.
NOHSAC says an independent, autonomously functioning and funded agency should operate an Occupational Disease and Surveillance System (ODISSY) that would "ensure that the appropriate data is collected" rather than just relying on data that has been collected by various agencies for other purposes.
Inia Motu’s family, and the families of the hundreds of workers who die from work-related injuries and diseases every year would heartily agree that it is time that those deaths counted for something: that we should learn from these unnecessary tragedies to prevent similar ones in the future.
The Government needs to act with urgency to rectify the present unacceptable situation. Workers continue to be killed while Ministers and bureaucrats sit on their hands.

1 comment:

Gus007 said...

Hi Len
I feel we have the same understanding of corporate greed and the lack of care for the workers. I have recently started a blog that I like to update daily and would love to add you as a member so you can make comment. Please have a look at the site and see if it interests you.

Warning I have been banned from a number of safety discussion forums and had my Safety Institute of Australia membership revoked becuase I am that disgusted with the Safety Professions insistence of behavioural engineering instead of putting in defences against energy release that injures.

Daniel Di-Giusto