War against killers we face at work

By Chloe Winter

The Government has started a major campaign to reduce deaths caused by workplace chemicals in a move that provides vindication for a family whose son was killed by paint fumes.

Jason Gibson with Sonia and Holly.
Jason Gibson with Sonia and Holly.

Ten days before Jason Gibson died, he visited his parents at their Christchurch home.

The young painter, a former boxer and "fit as a fiddle", was hungry. His father, Tony, sized up his son's appetite, and put extra bacon in the pan. Jason wolfed down the cooked breakfast and they chatted about the day.

During the conversation, Jason mentioned he was getting hay fever symptoms, including headaches.

Tony, also a painter, remembered Jason had been stripping lead paint, and suggested he get a blood test.

That was on Wednesday. On Friday, the results came back. Jason had acute promyelocytic leukaemia. Six days later, on November 12, 2003, he was dead.

Jason is one of many victims in one of New Zealand's darkest, dirtiest secrets - our toll of deaths caused by work-related disease.

No one knows exactly how many are dying - estimates range from 500 to 1000 a year. But what is known is that the toll is shockingly high.

This weekend, after a campaign by Jason's grieving parents, Environment Minister Amy Adams started an in-your-face publicity campaign to raise awareness of the dangers of workplace chemicals that she says kill 500 to 800 New Zealanders each year.

Billboards show a stark image of spray guns alongside handguns and assault rifles, with the warning: "Same result, different time frame."

"If they [chemicals] are not used safely, it can be fatal," Adams told the Herald on Sunday yesterday. "We are talking about a figure that is higher than New Zealand's annual road toll, which shows why action is needed."

Six months before Jason died, he stopped in to pick up his daughter from his parents' house. Jason was working as an industrial painter at the time, spraying brewery tanks.

As he got out of the car, he stumbled. At first Tony thought Jason had been drinking, but then a strong smell of fumes took him by surprise. Only now do Tony and Annette realise what that meant - Jason's body was loaded with toxins.

When Jason died, he left behind a young wife, Sonia, and a 3-year-old daughter, Holly, and two grieving parents determined to find out what had happened, and make sure another family didn't have to go through what they'd been through.

After a long battle with ACC, they eventually proved Jason's death was caused by toluene and xylene, two chemicals present in the paint products he was using.

"We knew there was something wrong. It wasn't a natural thing. They don't see any other reason how he got leukaemia - it wasn't in our family and it wasn't from the environment, so it had to come from what he was exposed to," Tony says.

His son's death was identified as the first industrial death in New Zealand caused by solvents - but it wasn't the last chemical tragedy for his family.

Chris Richardson, Tony Gibson's brother, died at the age of 56, from bladder cancer, caused by arsenic absorption and inhalation at his job at a timber mill in Nelson.

After the loss of two family members, Tony and Annette decided it was time to act.

Now, they're the face of the Glove Up campaign, trying to prevent other families going through what they've been through - an entirely preventable death caused by exposure to poisons at work.

One of New Zealand's largest paint companies, Resene, has signed on with the campaign and has a blue glove symbol on any toxic products. Mico Bathrooms has also said it wants to use the symbol.

Tony says other paint companies in New Zealand haven't got on board with Glove Up because they think they will lose sales.

"I don't see too many old painters; most of them have died from cancer," he claims. "We've got an epidemic and that's the problem. I can only see it getting worse with some of our trade practices."

"If what happened to our son happened in any other country in the world, we would have been suing Osh and Erma for millions."

A report from Massey University estimates between 516 and 804 people die each year from work-related disease and illness; the Department of Labour puts the number at 600 to 900.

A 2004 report from the National Occupational Health and Safety Advisory Committee estimated the death toll at 700 to 1000.

It took the death of 29 miners in the 2010 Pike River explosion to spur the Government to set up an independent taskforce on workplace health and safety.

It found workers were killed not only in mine and logging accidents, but also as a result of workplace ill-health.

It expressed "deep concern" that no one knew the exact number, because for years OSH was interested only in injury-related deaths.

It said New Zealand's workplace culture, with its "high tolerance for risk, and negative perceptions of health and safety, Kiwi stoicism, deference to authority, laid-back complacency and suspicion of red tape, all affect behaviour from the boardroom to the shop floor".

In response, the Government has changed the law to establish one stand-alone regulatory body, WorkSafe New Zealand, with a primary focus on occupational health and safety. It is expected to be operating by Christmas, and will take over the workplace safety responsibilities of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment.

WorkSafe NZ will absorb the workplace safety responsibilities of seven bodies - Customs, the ministries of Transport, Health and Business Innovation and Employment, the Civil Aviation Authority and Maritime NZ. It will take over from Osh, which will be axed.

Health and safety spending will increase from $50 million to $80 million between now and 2017, and Minister of Labour Simon Bridges said he expected WorkSafe NZ to reduce the number of deaths per year by a quarter over the next decade.

For Tony Gibson, those changes were a welcome relief after a long and lonely fight.

"We can't turn back time, but we can bloody well make sure that certain things are going to be done in the future."

It's now 10 years since Jason died. "When you see his little daughter," Tony said, "I look into her eyes and I'm looking at Jason. It's still pretty hard."

Compo fight thrown out

Grant Steel has been forced to give up his eight-year, $28,000 fight for ACC compensation for serious illness that he and his doctors believe was caused by an agricultural chemical he used at work.

The decision followed District Court Judge David Ongley's judgment that there was "insufficient evidence to establish cover for a work-related gradual process injury".

"I've fought them for years. I've given up now," the 49-year-old said yesterday. "It took two years to get to court and then they shafted me because I didn't have any money to pay for a lawyer."

Grant Steel near his Raglan home. Steel suffers ongoing effects from his exposure to Solutrace during the time he spent working on farms. Photo / Rhys Palmer
Grant Steel near his Raglan home. Steel suffers ongoing effects from his exposure to Solutrace during the time he spent working on farms. Photo / Rhys Palmer

Steel believed he contracted urticarial vasculitis, an auto-immune hypersensitivity disorder that caused chronic fatigue, hair loss and other symptoms, through exposure to the chemical Solutrace while working on a Waikato farm.

"It took a long time to figure out what was going on. I didn't realise how sick I was," he said. "There were no handling warnings on the product so that was my biggest beef. I wanted handling warnings on those products, but no one else got sick like I did."

The judge recognised that it is hard to prove that long-term exposure to a harmful work environment causes an illness.

"I don't think it was very fair at all but that was the system I was up against," Steel said. "It was horrible it was intimidating."

"I still get fatigue but I cope. I just get on with it."

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf04 at 26 Oct 2014 05:57:10 Processing Time: 485ms