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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

Health matters — Data opportunity

HEIDI BÖRNER says the time is right to get worker health data integrated into the wider health system, for the benefit of everyone – including SMEs.

If 2020 has shown us anything, it is that businesses need to be resilient and agile. The most important asset to a business is its people – their experience, energy, skills, motivation are what brings a business to life and helps it respond to challenges, helps it grow, and keeps it relevant and nimble. Workers are the lifeblood of business. It therefore pays to keep workers well and healthy.

Investing in worker health and wellbeing results in a high return on investment. A literature review shows anything from $3 to $50 returned for each dollar spent. But a key challenge for New Zealand is how to ensure those benefits are felt for the large proportion of businesses which are in the small to medium category.

For SMEs, a significant driver for ensuring they have health and safety systems in place is through the contracting process. They have to show that they must at least follow the requirements of the organisation contracting their services. (In theory, the Health and Safety at Work Act 2015 requires that of both parties.)

In practice, there is much more attention given to accidents than to exposures that affect health. While safety measures should cover health risks, often they don’t because they are not as well known, and the effects can be delayed by years. Examples are dust exposures in the construction and roading industries, and pesticide and other chemical exposures in the agricultural industry.

Another factor is the migrant worker population, which makes the health of those workers harder to follow up, or a super-mobile workforce where people might move often from one company to another, or from one job to another.


Currently the health data, even when it is captured, is not available for the workers, let alone available for their health provider – if they have one – to access.

It’s important to note there are two aspects of work health: the impact of work on health (which can be positive) and the impact of health on work, or what people bring into their workplace.

The point is that workplace health and wellbeing is complex, multifactorial, and elements cross-multiply to create even more complexity. One size does not fit all, things change rapidly, and SMEs need help and expertise to be equipped to manage it all. Fruit and pilates are nice, but these issues are much more complex than that. Single solutions won’t make a dent in the burden of workplace illness.

Covid has shown up many gaps in the New Zealand health care system, which are well articulated in the New Zealand Health and Disability System Review led by Heather Simpson in 2020. One glaring gap is the collection and use of workplace health data. Occupational health nurses and occupational physicians work outside of the health system, and the information these professionals generate sits in silos within companies or with independent clinicians, where it cannot be accessed or used.


Here are three things that would make a big difference right now. First, occupational health providers need to be able to access the national health system and enter health information into it, so that they can both send and receive communication to and from nurses, physicians and others within the public health system.

Second, workers need to have access to their own health data, whether it is generated via the workplace or via the healthcare system.

Third, improving SME access to occupational health practitioners through eliminating geographical, economical, and care delivery barriers.


These things can only happen with collaboration between occupational health specialists, workplaces, government (specifically the Ministry of Health), unions, workers, IT specialists and others to co-create and test ideas and solutions for this massive issue.

There are many examples where this should be applied urgently. Here are two:

  • • 
    Worker deaths in New Zealand via exposure to engineered stone dust will be greater in the next three years than Pike River, Covid, and Whakaari/White Island combined.
  • • 
    Between 750 and 900 people per year in New Zealand die from work-related cancer, asbestos and shift work.

With the health review imminent, we have a window of opportunity to rethink the occupational health system for New Zealanders. Let’s start that conversation off with an inclusive, collaborative approach that brings all the relevant expertise to the table.

HEIDI BÖRNER is a member of the NZOHNA and a director of consultancy Orange Umbrella.

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