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Inquiry into Management of Hazardous Substances

Speech notes: Minister of Labour Hon Margaret Wilson
Launch of the Ministerial Inquiry into the Management of Certain Hazardous Substances in Workplaces Report
Executive Foyer, The Beehive
10.30am Friday, 25 July 2003

Good morning.

It is good to see so many of you here today and I know you are all eager to learn of the Inquiry findings. But before I give the floor to Inquiry Head Denis Clifford I want to talk briefly about my reasons for commissioning the Inquiry.

It is 20 years since Marjorie Gordon, an experienced radiographer, presented a paper to a conference of New Zealand radiographers. Her paper outlined her health problems and what she had learned - from her private research - of the link between her illness and the x-ray chemicals to which she had been exposed.

Marjorie Gordon was a woman ahead of her time.

Almost 10 years before the Health and Safety in Employment Act was introduced in 1992, she called for three things: the risks of exposure to x-ray chemicals to be recognised; the use of those dangerous chemicals to be eliminated; and for safe x-ray processing machines and workplaces to be developed. Many of the issues raised by Marjorie Gordon in 1983 were very similar to those raised by people making submissions to this Inquiry.

By 1984, Marjorie had identified the hitherto little known fact that gluteraldehyde and other x-ray processing chemicals were hazardous. She also discovered there were safe ways of working with the chemicals, involving proper ventilation, good work practices and the use of protective equipment. The negative effects of x-ray chemicals on health were serious, she found, and could be caused either by low level exposure over time, or by a large one-off dose. And some people would suffer the negative effects of the chemicals at lower levels of exposure than others.

Marjorie focused her attention on x-ray processing chemicals, but over time, it became clear we also needed to be concerned about the adverse effects of other aldehydes and solvents.

The Guidelines Marjorie produced led to an ACC publication in 1986, and updated OSH Guidelines in 1992. In the meantime, however, the health of a number of radiographers and theatre nurses was affected. Theirs tended to be gradual, chronic illnesses, which take time to develop, but once contracted, do not go away. As we now know, some chemicals, such as asbestos, can be dangerous even with just a single significant exposure.

In 1997, a Support Network for the Aldehyde and Solvent Affected was set up to raise awareness of the problems of those working with these chemicals. Marjorie Gordon’s daughter Phillippa Martin, who is here with us this morning, has worked for years as the co-ordinator of that network. I would like now to pay tribute to Marjorie Gordon, and to her legacy. It is sad she is not alive to be here with us today. She was a courageous and intelligent woman, who can take credit for helping bring this important issue to the fore. Her research, and the guidelines she produced, have probably saved many people over the years from more serious health problems.

But it soon became evident to me on taking over Ministerial responsibility for workplace health and safety that New Zealand workers were still very much at risk from chemical exposure – too many were suffering unnecessary illness or and even death as a result of doing their job. There seemed to be a lack of pro-active management of hazardous chemicals, and I could see there were problems in achieving the best possible management of them in some workplaces.

I decided what was needed was an Inquiry – an independent Inquiry that could question all of the systems and processes involved – including those of government agencies.

I also had discussions with a radiographer in Tauranga, a woman called Helen O'Connor who belongs to the Glutaraldehyde, Aldehyde and Solvent Support Network. Helen has lobbied for many years on these issues agitating for safer conditions for those working with chemicals and other hazardous substances. I am grateful to her for sharing her experiences of work–related ill-health which further encouraged me to embark on this Inquiry.

I did not want the Inquiry to be a witch-hunt, so I requested it not to get into blame over any specific situation or incident. I wanted the Inquiry to learn from the experiences of the past, both good and bad, and draw lessons from them for the future.

I am well aware of how painful and sensitive it was for many of the people who made submissions to the Inquiry to delve into their memories. For many, the emotional and physical cost of exposure to hazardous chemicals has been high. They have undoubtedly suffered. It is important, therefore, to acknowledge the positive contribution of the individuals who submitted to the Inquiry. I know some of them were disappointed the Terms of Reference did not allow for personal cases to be examined, but I want to thank them for doing all they could to help the Inquiry draw from their personal experiences to improve health and safety for everyone.

I am delighted this Inquiry has been completed in a timely fashion, in what was really a very tight time frame. I thank Denis Clifford, his expert advisors and secretariat for their hard work.

I will now ask Denis to talk to you about his the result of that work.

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