#Safetyforlife, Impact

I once worked with a young woman who was convinced she had lead poisoning after working at an abandoned mine site in northern Canada. She was a professional scientist who became ill and felt compelled to do her own research into the risks associated with her work.

It seemed obvious to her. She was working in direct contact with a hazardous substance, and she had the classic symptoms of lead poisoning — abdominal pain, headaches, dizziness, fatigue — meaning her condition was potentially fatal. She reached a logical conclusion that her work on an old tailings site had compromised her nervous system.

As the health and safety manager at the time, I conducted an investigation into the control factors, the potential routes of entry, frequency of exposure, dust levels and the lead concentrations in the tailings. The reality was that there would have had to be a desert-like dust storm in northern Canada for staff to be exposed to anything even close to the occupational exposure limits for lead. The medical examination was also conclusive in revealing that her actual blood lead levels were far below those of a normal person. It turned out she did not have lead poisoning.

Sadly, this conclusion was made only after she had made herself sick with worry. It was a conclusion that should have been reached before work on site had started.

It might be surprising to learn that hazardous chemicals and substances cause the death of anywhere between 600 to 900 workers every year in New Zealand. There are an additional 20,000 to 30,000 new cases of occupational disease in New Zealand reported every year. These numbers are not unique to New Zealand; most developed countries face the same daunting numbers.

Compare the numbers of occupational illness fatalities to the officially reported 75 people who are fatally injured every year in New Zealand as a result of physical hazards at work. This number is easier to count and the hazards are easier to see.

The physical risks of a crushing machine, a sharp blade, mobile equipment, a deep pit or work on a high ledge are obvious to everyone. Furthermore, we intuitively know how to control these hazards with guards and barriers. We understand the importance of documenting this and training workers so everyone knows what they need to do and how they are protected.

Unlike the physical risks, hazardous substances are silent killers; some can seriously hurt you before you see anything, smell anything, or feel anything. Some you don’t even realise have caused damage until years later. The risks associated with hazardous substances (like lead, asbestos, benzene, hydrogen sulphide, arsenic, PCBs, fertilizers, and chlorine) are invisible and mysterious to most people.

“Health” has had a place next to “safety” (occupational health and safety) for years in New Zealand and around the world. But, if we are going to change the statistics and save our workers from chronic illnesses, acute poisons and premature deaths, we need to rethink the meaning and application of health and safety.

The simplest way to make this shift is to start treating the risks associated with hazardous substances in the same way we treat physical hazards. What are you exposed to, and how can we guarantee that you are protected? What information needs to be on a label or package? What training or education needs to be provided?

To address this imbalance, the Independent Taskforce for Health and Safety in New Zealand noted that there was a lack of accessibility to information associated with hazardous substances, and this was confounded by a lack of government accountability.

The taskforce called for serious reform to educate employers, protect employees and others as well as improve our ability to monitor occupational illness and disease. And now, the new regulator WorkSafe New Zealand and the new legislation, the proposed Health and Safety at Work Act, are poised to enact major changes based on these recommendations.

The new regulations will fully embrace the Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labelling of Chemicals — the single internationally agreed system of chemical classification and hazard communication through labelling and Safety Data Sheets.

Compliance with this new legislation will result in sweeping changes. It is hoped that these changes will help avoid situations like that of the Australian hairdressing employees who suffered from skin irritations and respiratory illnesses as a result of what they thought was keratin hair straightening products. In this case, the product labels were written in Arabic. Once interpreted, it was discovered that the products were actually fabric softener containing carcinogenic formaldehyde.

As part of this shift, we all need to consider our individual responsibilities in the supply chain or lifecycle of hazardous substances. Under the new act, Persons Conducting a Business or Undertaking (PCBU) will replace the term “employer,” reminding us that there are often multiple employers and stakeholders that need to work together to manage the health of workers.

Everyone has a role to play — from the manufacturer of a substance to the designer of the vessel, and from the transporter of the material to the PCBU whose workers are using, handling, or storing a hazardous substance or chemical. What do you know about a substance that needs to be passed to the next person in the chain to ensure everyone is protected?

And it’s not just those chemicals that come in bottles. There are health risks for people at abandoned mine sites, landfills or dump sites, and for those who work in old abandoned buildings or at sites where there is naturally occurring radiation. Regardless of the form hazardous substances can take, our obligation to review the hazards and controls, communicate the risks to those affected and confirm appropriate mitigation measures, equipment and emergency support is still the same.

Everyone has a right to go home safe and free from acute harm at the end of each day. But everyone also has a right to a long life, free from chronic illness, lung cancer, ischaemic heart disease, nervous system disorders, asbestosis, lead poisoning — and other diseases often caused by encounters with hazardous substances. I am forever thankful for my free lesson in northern Canada. But I often wonder — what if the story had ended differently?

Wendi_Croft_HS_BW_89x100Wendi Croft is the safety, health & environment manager for AECOM’s New Zealand operations. She has more than 15 years of experience as a safety professional; an environmental scientist; and a leader in business excellence, sustainability and corporate social responsibility. She is an elected member of the WasteMINZ Health and Safety Steering Committee, an appointed member of WorkSafe New Zealand’s Hazardous Substances Guidance Group, chair of the Business Leaders Health and Safety Forum’s Technical Advisory Group and a consultant on the WorkSafe New Zealand Specialist Consultancy Panel.
LinkdIn: Wendi Croft


McAllister, S, Derrett, S, Audas, R, Herbison, P, and Paul, C. (2013). ‘Do different types of financial support after illness or injury affect socio-economic outcomes? A natural experiment in New Zealand’. Social Science & Medicine, Vol. 85, pp 93-102.
Pearce, N, Dryson, E, Feyer, A-M, Gander, P, McCracken, S and Wagstaffe, M (2004). The Burden of Occupational Disease and Injury in New Zealand: Report to the Associate Minister of Labour. NOHSAC: Wellington.
Statistics New Zealand (2010).
Working Safer: A blueprint for health & safety at work, gov’t of NZ, August 2013

Originally published Jul 15, 2015

Author: Wendi Croft