Wilson address at research report Launch
Wilson address at Launch of a research report into the Social and Economic Consequences of Workplace Injury and Illness
The four stories we have just seen powerfully demonstrate the sometimes-horrific human impact of workplace accidents.
There are many other stories included in the book. They are at times harrowing, with expressions of grief and loss that cannot but move the reader. They are also at times full of hope, courage and determination, as those harmed, their families and workplaces express how they struggled to overcome the severe consequences that the injury or illness wreaked on their lives.
But as a whole this study does more than express individual experience. There are 15 individual stories from widely different industries, with very different injuries or illnesses; they express, however, a collective burden.
The weight of the suffering and loss can be seen for what it is to the community as a whole - a drag on growth, a brake on success and happiness. Multiply the stories literally hundreds and thousands of times and you can begin to understand the level of waste, suffering and loss that unnecessary occupational illness and injury produces.
At a distance from those directly involved, I would like to thank those who participated in this study for the honesty and courage they showed in telling their stories.
This study achieved its aim of highlighting and raising awareness of the debilitating effect of workplace injury and illness for the victim, their friends and family, workplace, and the costs to Government.
And for that I thank the researchers and others from the Department of Labour WEB Research and ACC for the hours of work and evident care they have taken with this work.
The study began in 2001 and involved 15 case studies and 68 interviews with employees, their families, work colleagues and, if appropriate, OSH and other health and safety professionals who were involved.
As the study clearly shows, the consequences from workplace injury and illness extend out from the injured or ill employee. These consequences are both visible and invisible; they may be temporary or permanent, or even final.
No one person in any of the 'areas' discussed (the individual, their friends and family, their workplace and colleagues, the government, the medical community) sees or experiences the full extent of the direct and indirect social and economic consequences of injuries or illness in workplaces.
Therefore, to understand the total consequences requires measures that go beyond just counting cases or calculating dollar figures. To provide insight and understanding into specific impacts, and to gain a human perspective, the definition of costs must be widened beyond compensated costs to include 'non-economic' costs - the unquantifiable consequences of injury and illness that are both multiple and complex.
The study shows that a considerable proportion of the indirect costs were borne by the injured or ill employee or their family. For example, the effects on their relationships were considerable. Loss of intimacy, increased distance between spouses, partners or parents and children, employer and employee, and between workmates, were common in the participants. Feeling isolated or self-imposed isolation put relationships under pressure - some broke down while others emerged from the difficult period strengthened through shared experiences. Other costs involved loss of future earnings and medical expenses.
For the employer, costs included lost production, negative impacts on staff morale, bad publicity, the costs of replacing employees or equipment and in some cases, legal costs. For the workplace, costs included the loss of a friend and colleague, possibly animosity towards the injured or ill employee, and even the unmeasurable impact of feeling somehow responsible for an accident or fatality.
For the Government sector, the impact on officials carrying out statutory functions was observed, including the psychological impact of investigating fatalities, dealing with recalcitrant employers, and comforting bereaved or confused families. Other hidden costs include costs of medical retirement for government employees, as well as education, injury prevention, and costs of investigation and appeals.
Research has shown these indirect, unquantified costs are many times the amount of the direct, known costs, estimated as at least four per cent of New Zealand's GDP.
Increasing our understanding of how these costs arise; what alleviates and exacerbates, causes or prevents them, will also increase our understanding of the consequences to ordinary people of the impact of government policies and legislation.
It also contributes to our understanding of how to minimise the aftermath for all those affected, as well as plan and provide appropriate support and prevention.
The study found one of the major relationships between social and economic consequences revolved around socio-economic status. Being in a higher socio-economic profession prevented or alleviated adverse social or economic outcomes. Usually related to this was having a higher level of education, with ample social and/or workplace support.
The labour market status of other participants affected their behaviour following their illness or injury. The fact that some participants indicated they did not feel secure in their current job and were finding it difficult to secure alternative employment meant staying in their former occupation, instead of moving on.
The visibility and invisibility of injury or illness was a major factor in many of our cases, with influences acting from all areas. With an obvious, demonstrable link to the workplace, the injured participants received more support.
Conversely, for the ill participants, establishing the work-relatedness of the illness was a major barrier to effective and timely support. Delays in diagnosis, and/or debates over the nature of exposure, had serious implications for treatment and recovery.
Finally, a further determinant observed which impacted across all areas was the level of health and safety awareness by the employer and their employees. The case studies showed this influenced the attitude of the employees themselves, and had a considerable impact on the outcomes for the injured or ill employee, and their family, as well as how they were treated by others.
Whether health and safety was regarded as integral to the business, an afterthought, or was not even considered, this attitude and its resultant behaviour had major consequences for the injured or ill employee. As a result of Ian's death, his employer set up an extensive health and safety compliance team.
The support given to Grant was in stark contrast to the complete lack of acknowledgement or support given to John. The ignorance shown by Barbara's employer contrasts with the successful case managing of Lisa's supervisor and health and safety officer.
These cases showed that having an effective health and safety system in place prevented or alleviated such adverse outcomes for the participants and their families.
It is opportune this study comes as amendments to the Health and Safety in Employment Act are soon to be debated in Parliament.
First and foremost the Health and Safety in Employment Amendment Bill is about reducing the human cost of poor workplace safety and health.
The other cornerstone element in the new legislation is helping every business towards best possible practice in health and safety.
We want the economy to grow and people to be employed. We want productive workplaces with the best possible output at the least possible cost.
That means human costs too. It also means clear rules, proper incentives - and effective, open communication. We should not expect or accept workplace injury as the inevitable and unavoidable cost of doing business.
What we should expect is that our employers provide a safe workplace. Employers, equally, should expect their employees to take personal responsibility; and not put themselves or their workmates at risk.
The Amendment Bill contains a fundamental principle of our workplace and safety reforms - positive, co-operative relationships between workers and employers.
None of this is threatening. All of it is designed to take us forward.
The findings of this
research highlight the fundamental and undeniable importance
of the effective management of workplace health and safety.
Far from representing a compliance cost, the social and
economic consequences arising from workplace illness and
injury are, as you have seen and heard this morning,
extraordinary and impact on all involved, including the
community and country as a whole.