About Breathe Freely New Zealand
Breathe Freely New Zealand aims to prevent dust-related occupational lung disease, such as silicosis, in workers, through education & awareness of safe work practices to control exposures. It is a program of the New Zealand Occupational Hygiene Society (NZOHS), the organisation representing occupational hygiene professionals committed to protecting worker health.
Breathe Freely New Zealand is an adaption of the highly successful UK Breathe Freely initiative developed by the British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS). The UK Breathe Freely is aimed at reducing occupational lung disease in the UK which causes significant debilitating ill-health and an estimated 13,000 deaths per year. The BOHS initiative was launched in 2015 addressing the construction sector, followed by the launch of the manufacturing section in 2017. In 2020, the BOHS and AIOH generously allowed the NZOHS to develop the Breathe Freely New Zealand program, to meet industry needs. It is about raising awareness both of the problem and how to do something about it. We can protect workers’ health and prevent most of these diseases and deaths. It is not just “the right thing to do”, it is good for business as well.
What is occupational hygiene?
Occupational hygiene is the preventative side of occupational health: recognising health hazards in the workplace, understanding the real risks these pose to workers’ health, and then controlling their exposures to them. It helps employers and employees understand the health risks, and then improve working conditions and working practices through suitable, inexpensive, effective and practical exposure control measures.
How occupational hygiene benefits the four building blocks for good business
The business case for occupational health and hygiene is strong and convincing. It can bring a significant return on investment, improve employee relations, demonstrate social responsibility, and enhance a company’s reputation. But, it must also be central to the organisation’s vision and goals. Here we corroborate the case: good occupational hygiene = good business.
The big picture: every year, sickness absence due to occupational diseases excluding musculoskeletal and mental health issues, are making a significant contribution to the number of workers impacted and financial cost burden for employers. This does not include today’s costs of work-related cancers and lung disease caused by past workplace exposures. The full cost is considerably more. Occupational disease can be prevented through good occupational hygiene, and less working time lost to ill-health offers obvious cost benefits to the whole of “New Zealand plc”.
The savings extend further down the scale to individual organisations, through shorter contract times, more efficient working processes and systems, fewer administrative issues and sometimes lower direct costs. The cost of sickness absence is not always as obvious as lost time and sick pay. It potentially means extra wages, overtime working, temporary labour, recruitment costs, and lower production; it can also mean medical costs, legal costs, and fines if the employer is at fault.
Although the numbers for New Zealand were not available, in the UK construction industry, currently only 46% of workers remain in the industry until the age of 60, which compares unfavourably with other industries. The construction process today still damages workers and their family life, yet most of this ill-health is preventable; a change now will lead to a far higher percentage of workers experiencing long and productive working lives over the next 20 years and beyond. Notwithstanding the moral obligation of a company to protect the health of its workers, keeping them fit to do their job through to retirement age would remove the financial burden of recruiting and training new entrants each year.
By implementing a planned occupational hygiene programme, and focussing on effective exposure control prior to starting a project, you can utilise integrated ill-health prevention measures that will have a positive short and long term impact on your budget and on your workforce.
Examples: How occupational hygiene helps costs
Effective does not have to mean expensive. Early input of occupational hygienists in design and planning can completely eliminate some health hazards and minimise others, through material substitution and process adaptations. For example, push-fit pipe fittings avoid the need for soldering; rosin-free solder, prefabricated concrete, pre-cut tiles, silica-free materials and plastic instead of concrete kerb stones can all be planned in and procured. The list of potential substitutions is long and ever-growing, and many substitutions can provide a like-for-like saving even before hidden costs are factored in.
Such changes can have very large pay-offs because the change can have impacts that create efficiencies throughout the business processes and product life cycle, reducing costs right away, as well as in the longer term. Hazard elimination can avoid the need to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) that is often very expensive as well as usually the least effective way to protect people. Containment projects can result in decreased exposures and improved employee health and significant savings in resource, waste disposal costs and improved environmental controls where the benefits outweigh the costs.
Healthy workers are more engaged, motivated and productive and they stay in their jobs longer. Having a supportive culture by investing in an effective health protection programme pays off by encouraging innovation, responsibility, reliability and sustained performance. Look after your people and your people will look after your business (Investors in People).
The construction industry as a whole finds itself in a position of rapid growth and with no real prospect of fully mobilising the right people with the right skills and experience to match demand. The relatively short working life of construction workers, coupled with an ageing workforce across all New Zealand sectors presages a future crisis in construction if nothing changes. Companies who keep their employees (through good health and a supportive culture) will benefit from minimising their own skills shortage and maintaining stability and a core level of experienced workers. Conversely, those who don’t will face difficulties in managing current projects and planning future ones.
Exposure control is key to protection, but the invisible nature of many toxic substances coupled with the long latency of their ill effects, means that controls aren’t always considered as important as they should be. A good control method becomes a poor one if it’s broken, not used or wrong, and is often why construction workers still get ill and die from preventable diseases. So, if there is not a fit-for-purpose control programme in place, then all the reasons for failure come into play.
Good employee relations include proper training, communication, supervision and enforcement, and these are all vital elements of a good exposure control programme too. When managers understand the health risks from the substances used/activities carried out and the importance of controls, they can lead with advocacy and good practice; their employees also then understand the risks, why and how to effectively control them, and what to do if something goes wrong.
Examples: How occupational hygiene helps employee relations
Comfort and fit are key to the effectiveness of many types of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). So, if a tight-fitting respirator doesn’t have a good seal with the wearer’s face then the contaminants in the air will still be breathed in; or if gloves are uncomfortable or overalls make the user overheat, they won’t be worn or they’ll be taken off too soon. But if workers are consulted whilst selecting PPE then preferences can often be accommodated safely, and if the equipment fits, is comfortable and works it is much more likely to be worn.
A properly integrated worker health protection programme that fits within a wider health strategy provides a strong blueprint for building excellence in all areas of employee relations.
Corporate Social Responsibility
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) entails businesses developing a positive relationship with the society in which they operate, sowing the idea that they should embrace their social responsibilities and not be solely focused on maximising profits. CSR means integrating economic, social, ethical and environmental considerations into business operations. The social pillar of this covers the human element, including your employees and the people who contribute to your business (contractors, suppliers, etc.) as well as the community in which you operate.
Organisations have a social responsibility that is more than just legal compliance, and which includes the duty to prevent people being harmed where they can. Thus, Occupational Health & Safety (OHS) forms an integral part of CSR, and it means that businesses that take it seriously go beyond compliance. Industries have made significant progress in occupational safety, and as a result the major challenge in improving OHS lies in improving occupational health.
The construction industry recognises the huge impact of occupational ill-health and has shown that it can respond and change: accidental fatalities are now rare and safety management on sites is widely embraced. But, this cultural shift has not stretched to health in any except the largest of the companies building now, and many could do more. Although numbers are not available for the New Zealand workforce, in the UK every year, there are one hundred times more deaths caused by occupational disease than by accidents. Treating health like safety in our New Zealand workplaces is a social responsibility that industry leaders are beginning to recognise.
Social responsibility is increasingly fundamental to many companies’ business models, some investors use a company’s social responsibility – or lack thereof – as an investment criterion (Investopedia). According to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO), this relationship to the society in which they operate is “a critical factor in their ability to continue to operate effectively. It is also increasingly being used as a measure of their overall performance.”
Implementing an effective occupational hygiene programme is part of, and helps organisations to demonstrate, corporate social responsibility.
The reputation of a business is essential to its survival; it needs to be conscious of the fast changing media viewpoint, whether this is through television and radio, social media, business forums or even word of mouth. If a company receives bad publicity it could seriously affect the business through loss of trust. Customers may stop buying products and key suppliers may stop selling. It can be difficult to gain a good reputation, but very easy to lose it. A good reputation is built not just via a good product, but also through reliability, trust, customer focus and leadership in all areas of business, and by extension cannot exclude preventing the ill-health of the people who work there.
The shifting focus of the construction industry onto health will enhance its appeal. A company’s reputation can be affected by the wider perceptions about the industry it’s in; a good industry-wide reputation means it competes better with other industries to attract young people and investment. On a smaller scale, the reputation of individual construction companies that manage health prevention well will also reap the same benefits.
A good business reputation will be a major factor in winning new business and retaining valuable customers. Customer expectations of exemplary occupational health and safety performance are growing all the time, and not just in some “high (reputational) risk” sectors (e.g. chemicals, energy industry, pharmaceuticals, food processing, healthcare) but across the board. In construction, for example, it is now an essential pre-qualification requirement for most commercial developments.
Being ahead of the pack in the way you manage health risks in your business can differentiate you and give an edge in a competitive tender situation. To be able to demonstrate enlightened best practice through an effective occupational hygiene programme will set you apart from your competition.
In short good occupational hygiene intervention is good for your business, whether it be from a financial benefit, protecting the health of your staff in the longer term, or ensuring you have a strong commitment in terms of legal and social responsibility, all resulting in the protection and enhancement of your reputation.
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