Quarrying & Mining Magazine
Health & Safety

Oh dear – beer for breakfast The problem with OSH statistics

It is Saturday morning at the bauma show in Munich. I am sitting with a large group of young German chaps breakfasting on Bavarian beer, spuds and sausage, as you do over there.

It occurred to me that the Germans are so politically incorrect. They smoke like chimneys, don’t wear cycle helmets, wallop misbehaving kids in public, arm their large police force with very big guns, don’t queue for public transport, generate nuclear power, allow dogs in retail shops, and drink beer at breakfast time.
I was telling my hosts that all this very incorrect behaviour would be illegal in sensible New Zealand and they said wow! New Zealand must be a very orderly country – like Sweden?
Well – not exactly, I had to confess.
According to the New Zealand ministry of this and the ministry of that – we have some of the worse stats in the world. For some reason we are both a world leader in both PC fanaticism and unhealthy lifestyle. Some of these statistics can be explained (and avoided). We can thank the harsh UV over our heads for our lead in skin cancer, and our tempestuous climate and rugged landscape for a very high rate of aquatic fatalities and a high annual tally of dead tourists.
We also have a lot of workers who work outside and a high number of SMEs where people work in isolation with no one watching their back. Agriculture is an industry around the world with high injury rates, and agriculture is the heart of our economy.
I want to iterate that I personally endorse the target of reducing workplace accidents by 2025. Who wouldn’t? But I do take issue with comparing our occupational safety and health (OSH) stats and systems with other markets, and making the country out to be comparatively dangerous in the workplace.
The difficulty of collecting consistent and reliable OSH information from different markets is acknowledged by any researcher and report you care to search for online. The relationship between health and injury in different markets lacks clarity, data is usually collected in an ad hoc manner with poor definitions and, often, interpreted with political motives.
I am not saying our country has not got dangerous practices and we can’t do anything about it, but I don’t see the point in being fixated about eight hours of our day and not place the same remedial focus on the other 16 hours. Some fool who drives recklessly to work is not going to turn into a saint at the work gates. And just think of the stupidity of exploding 1700 tonnes of fireworks over public heads (and in their faces) each November with no regard to burn injuries, let alone respiratory health effects.
Much of the new direction of workplace safety is the result of an excellent report completed over 10 months in 2012 by a government appointed, independent, taskforce (published in 2013) that found our health and safety system ‘not fit for purpose’ and made some well-researched recommendations (www.hstaskforce.govt.nz).
While the findings of this taskforce is full of well-researched information and good advice, it is also guarded with caution about both quality of our own OSH information and making international OSH comparisons. In fact, the taskforce decided not to include the findings from a study it commissioned on overseas markets, or any international comparisons. It only referred to this University of Otago report as a working paper. This reports compared us with eight other countries through International Labour Organisation stats from 2005-2008 (OSH classification changed in 2009). Right from the beginning, the authors point out a “wide variability in data coverage … that makes direct comparison … extremely problematic”. In its conclusion it further warns: “While making direct comparison of international occupation fatal injury rates to benchmark occupational safety performance is appealing … there are many pitfalls to consider.”
However, this did not temper the likes of this media report:
“It is roughly twice as dangerous to work in New Zealand as in Australia and almost four times as dangerous as working in Britain.” Really?
The problem with OSH statistics
You can’t tackle workplace safety if you don’t exactly know what the problem is and to do that you need accurate information, and accurate information needs accurate data.
The independent 2013 Taskforce on Workplace Health and Safety, tasked with finding out how we are going to cut our workplace injury and death toll by 25 percent by 2020 (the equivalent of one Eden Park’s worth of casualties, someone has noted) made it very clear something was wrong with our health and safety, but couldn’t place a finger on any one reason.
One of the reasons, it explains, is a lack of clarity in the way we and other nations, collect information on workplace fatalities and injuries.
“In reviewing the fatality figures we were struck by how little knowledge there was of how the headline numbers were derived and how unreliable they were,” says the report in one of its many cautions and disclaimers.
“As a result, in our Safer Workplaces consultation document we reported that there is no comprehensive or reliable data set for monitoring workplace fatal injury rates in New Zealand.”
Elsewhere it says: “The Taskforce is left with a profound unease about the quality of data in New Zealand and the fact that this had previously not been detected by the agencies responsible for the data. We are deeply concerned that we do not have a clear, reliable picture of New Zealand’s performance.”
The taskforce also said on international comparisons: “While this report reinforced to us that New Zealand’s comparative performance with OECD countries was not good – in light of the ongoing problems with New Zealand’s official injury statistics we have decided not to include the findings from the commissioned study, or any international comparisons, in this report.” As I explained in my editorial, the authors of this ‘report’ at Otago University had great difficulty making OSH comparisons around the world.
It didn’t help that during the compiling of the taskforce report in 2012 Statistics New Zealand issued an official caution: “We have discovered some quality concerns with the work-related indicators and are working to fix them. By taking extra time to evaluate the information available, we will be able to provide a more accurate summary of the outcomes for serious work-related injury in New Zealand. We are working with other agencies that hold relevant data to improve these indicators… We recommend that no further use is made of the data on work-related injury in earlier publications until our review is complete.”
The advice to be very cautious about comparing ourselves with other markets is hardly new. An earlier report from NOHSAC that Dr Nicholas Kendall published in 2006 comparing us with the UK, US, Finland, Canada and Australia, made it clear that there is no consistent OSH system around the world and data collecting was rife with pitfalls.
“The relationship between health and injury lacks clarity,” he said. “This is largely due to the ad hoc manner in which cases are currently classified and attributed. For example, 39 percent of cases in the UK are classified as injuries, whereas in the US, 94 percent are called work-related injuries. Poor definitions, together with incentives and disincentives to classify one way or another, provide arbitrary divisions that defy meaningful interpretation.”
Disparities with market stats
Should we be surprised to read these cautions and disclaimers? The standard of workplace data around the world is far from uniform. Does the information include road and air accidents? Does it include the self-employed? Does it only involve insured workers? How does it handle fatalities from occupational disease? How is the data collected? In Australia, for example, due to its federal system, there is no single national research institution that tackles the whole field of OSH.
There is also a big difference around the world interpreting injury and illness.
The UK, for instance, classifies a big percentage of its work health problems as illness, rather than injury. According to the NOHSAC report of 2006, 61 percent of workplace health in the UK was classified as ‘ill health’ and only 39 percent as ‘injuries’. This was in stark contrast to the US, for example, with only about six percent of cases classified as occupational illnesses and 94 percent as work-related injuries. Hence the UK records a much lower workplace injury rate than the US.
European Union member countries share data on occupational accidents that result in at least four calendar days of absence from work, including fatal accidents. However, there is no agreement of the definition of ‘during the course of work’. In the UK, accidents occurring in road traffic (during work) are not covered by the reporting system, and it is thought by some other EU members that these accidents may account for about half of all fatal work accidents.
If you do your own online research on OSH stats you will likely come across the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that broadly records work deaths per 100,000 population. The ILO and World Health Organization (WHO) have shared a common definition of occupational health since 1950. Although it relies on data collected by individual countries, ILO figures are widely used for comparative workplace safety. Because of a change in it classification system in 2009, figures from 2000 to 2008 are usually quoted. New Zealand appears to have an average of four deaths per 100,000 population – around 80-105 fatalities, although some years (such as 2005) are worse than others (imagine if they included 2010?).
I found online a comparative OSH country report done in Australia from 2004 ILO stats. That year the Aussies scored 2.6 deaths per 100,000 while we scored 3.1 out of 100,000, which is only half a percentage point difference. That same year, according to the ILO, the UK had 0.8 deaths per 100,000, Sweden 1.4, Norway 1.6, Denmark 1.8, Switzerland 2.0, Germany 3.0 and the US 4.0. If we compare ourselves with ILO stats from 2001 say, Ireland had 4.2 deaths per 100,000, Austria 4.5, France 4.5, Greece 6.2, Italy 7, Canada 7.1, Spain 7.9 and Portugal 8.7.
Meantime – here are a few reliable (we trust) and finger-pointing home stats (from 2014) found on www.Stats.govt.nz and based on the 226,100 ACC claims for a work-related injury, with 28,100 of these for entitlement (ie, more serious) claims.
The overall rate of injury claims was 111 claims for every 1000 full-time equivalent employees (FTEs). The inclusion of claims submitted by accredited employers (for the first time) led to an increase in the number and rate of claims. Excluding accredited employer claims, there would have been 191,100 claims and an incidence rate of 94 work-related injury claims per 1000 FTEs.
The forestry industry had the highest number of entitlement claims as a proportion of all claims within the industry, with 20 percent of claims involving entitlement payments. Males had the most claims for fatal work-related injuries, with 96 percent of fatal claims. Workers aged 15–24 years and workers aged 65 years and over had the highest claim rates across all age groups.
Of the four major ethnic groups, Pacific peoples had a higher claim rate (106 claims per 1000 FTEs) than Maori (97), European (89), and Asian (57) workers.
Just under one-quarter of agriculture and fishery workers made a work-related claim in 2014, the highest incidence by occupation.
Trends from final data for 2002–13 show that: The number of claims has been steadily decreasing since 2005, but increased slightly between 2012 and 2013 – the first increase in eight years.
The incidence rate has fallen each year since 2002 (from 158 claims per 1000 FTEs in 2002 to 111 in 2013). However, this trend has slowed since 2011.
Since 2002, the incidence rate has been consistently higher for self-employed workers than for employees. In 2013, the incidence rate was 163 claims per 1000 FTEs for self-employed people, compared with 106 claims for employees.
Agriculture and fishery workers have consistently had the highest claim rate since 2008.
So is it safe to say in terms of OSH targets we have specific industries, gender, age and even ethnicites, but is that being too German?

This editorial by Alan Titchall was first published in Q&M‘s June-July 2016 issue.

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