Teuila Fuatai

Teuila Fuatai is a reporter for the NZ Herald

Horrific workplace injuries revealed

File photo / Thinkstock
File photo / Thinkstock

Spider bites, the bends, exposure to chemicals and chafing have all resulted in serious workplace injuries to Kiwi workers.

A detailed breakdown of more than 16,400 serious harm workplace accidents reported during the last three years reveals a painful litany of broken bones, disfiguring burns and horrific life-altering injuries.

The Department of Labour figures - which include dozens of workplace fatalities - were released to APNZ under the Official Information Act.

About 4500 workers suffered serious injuries from a fall, trip or slip - the biggest single cause of accidents.

Thousands of others were badly hurt after being hit by moving objects, falling from heights, hitting objects with parts of the body or becoming trapped between stationary and moving objects.

But others employees suffered more unusual injuries.

Forty workers were badly hurt "bitten or stung by an animal, insect or spider" and 37 suffered exposure to a "single, sudden sound or noise".

Fifty accidents involved "heat radiation or energy", while 25 workers were injured after contact with chemicals or other harmful substances.

"Rubbing and chaffing" was even implicated in seven serious harm workplace accidents, while five people were hurt through variations in pressure, altitude sickness or the bends.

More than 20 Kiwi workers have died on the job already this year alone with the forestry sector experiencing the highest workplace death rate.

New Zealand's woeful workplace health and safety record came under fire last month after the release of a damning inquiry report into the 2010 Pike River Mine explosion, which killed 29 West Coast workers.

It blamed both the mining company and Government for health and safety failing, prompting the resignation of Labour Minister Kate Wilkinson from her portfolio.

Shell Todd Service general manager Rob Jager, who is heading a task force to improve workplace safety, described current standards as extremely poor.

New Zealand's fatality rate was more than six times as bad as the United Kingdom and nearly twice as bad as Australia.

However, EPMU health and safety coordinator Fritz Drissner warned that many workplace injuries probably flew under the radar.

There were disincentives in place which discouraged incident reporting, he said.

Employers often imposed drug and alcohol tests on staff when workplace accidents occurred.

"[Workers] get a lot of grief and a lot of hassle if they report an injury.

"Very few employers acknowledge they've set up a dangerous situation."

Costs associated with injury reporting also presented problems, Mr Drissner said.

"If they report an injury their employer's bill goes up next year for ACC, so their levy goes up.

"There's quite a lot of disincentives that employers put in place and it's mainly around saving money on ACC."

Employers can face stiff penalties if workers are injured on the job.

A prosecution can result in a fine of up to $500,000 or a two-year prison term if an employer is found guilty of failing to ensure a safe work environment.

Fishing company Sealord was fined $63,400 last month and ordered to pay reparations of $12,500 to a fisherman who fell through a hatch and ruptured his spleen while was working aboard the Ocean Dawn in October 2011.

The largest penalty imposed during the last three year was on Kiwi Steel NZ. The company was ordered to pay $237,500 in March 2011 after failing to report that two workers had the skin stripped from their fingers, one worker had part of their finger amputated and another broke his foot when a piece of steel fell on it.

Despite the nation's woeful workplace injury statistics, the Employers and Manufacturers Association said many employers took health and safety seriously.

"Employers invest a lot of time and money in their businesses and their staff are the business," occupational health and safety manager Paul Jarvie said.

"They don't want to injure them."

Improvements in reporting incidents which resulted in "near-misses" rather than just actual accidents was needed, he said.

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Workplace Serious Harm Notifications in the three years to August 2012:

(Includes fatalities)

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National total: 16,468

Top five accidents

* Fall, trip or slip: 4500

* Hit by moving objects: 2804

* Falls from a height: 1329

* Hitting objects with part of the body: 1245

* Falls on the same level : 885

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