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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters



Safeguard Magazine

(Well) beyond the basics

A wellness programme that includes fatigue management and cancer screening took out the wellbeing category in this year’s NZ Workplace Health & Safety Awards. JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM reports.

For the 270 workers at Taranaki methanol producer Methanex NZ, the company wellbeing programme is a bit like pick-and-mix. Occupational health advisor Christine Scott strives to make the programme so diverse that everyone will find something to participate in, and is constantly on the lookout for new ideas.

“I’m always keeping an eye on what’s going on – nationally, globally, and within the organisation – to see what issues are emerging, what people are keen on, and what we can do to address these things,” she says. “And I’m really lucky, because when I come up with new ideas I get a lot of support from the company.”

The result is a wellbeing programme that offers a wide, and ever-evolving, variety of options:

  • • 
    fitness assessments three times a year, with a sports store voucher for those whose fitness improves or maintains a good level;
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    free first aid training for all staff, their families and key local organisations;
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    a range of vaccinations, including shingles shots for over 50s;
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    annual skin checks;
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    shiatsu massage;
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    compression socks and pandemic kits for travellers;
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    self-defence workshops for women;
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    smoothie machines in the 24-hour operations department; and
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    free fruit for more than 600 contractors during scheduled maintenance shutdowns.

SERIOUS HEALTH RISKS

Since 2015, however, the programme has been taking a new direction, with a succession of initiatives to target serious occupational health risks – bladder cancer, bowel cancer, and fatigue.

“We’re a chemical manufacturing plant with an ageing, predominantly male, shiftwork-based workforce,” Scott says. “These are all risk factors for bladder and bowel cancers, so doing some screening seemed like a responsible precautionary measure.

“And as a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week operation, fatigue is always going to be both a health issue and a safety issue.”

Health screening was familiar territory for her – before joining Methanex Scott managed the screening unit at Taranaki Base Hospital – but even so the bladder cancer project was a big undertaking. With no national screening programme available, she tracked down a laboratory in Dunedin that could conduct the tests, and supplied participants with urine sampling kits and postage bags for forwarding, then brought in Mad Butcher Sir Peter Leitch – a bladder cancer survivor – to share his story with workers.

Thanks to her meticulous planning, the take-up rate was high, with more than 80% of staff participating. From the 200 samples supplied, six showed indicators requiring follow up, and one person subsequently received surgery to deal with a potentially serious condition.

FATIGUE TRACKED

Even while working on the bladder cancer project Scott was making plans for another ambitious new venture, bringing in a human factors consultant from the Keil Centre in Australia as well as local sleep scientist and nutritionist Dr Richard Swinbourne to spearhead a detailed year-long study of operator fatigue.

“We hadn’t had any incidents, but we knew it was an area that was important, so we wanted to get ahead of the ball,” she says.

Swinbourne worked closely with operators, coming in on both night and day shifts, and also did one-on-one healthy eating consultations. He also explained to the shiftworkers that what they ate, and when they ate it, could have a big impact on their fatigue levels and their ability to sleep when work was over.

To gauge the extent of the fatigue problem he used a combination of questionnaires, sleep diaries, and personal actigraphy monitors, to plot fatigue patterns over an eight-day shift rotation.

When this information was collated, and compared with that from a second group of workers doing regular day shifts, it showed a significantly increased incidence of poor quality sleep and daytime sleepiness among those working nights. In some cases obstructive sleep apnoea was identified as a contributing factor, and Scott says a number of workers went on to have nasal surgery, or get continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines, to resolve a problem that might otherwise have gone undiagnosed.

In response to concerns about fatigue-related risks, the company developed workshops to raise worker awareness, task-related fatigue risk management strategies, guidelines to help supervisors identify and deal with fatigue issues, and provided napping facilities within work areas.

THE NAP ROOM

To provide ongoing fatigue monitoring, those who use the nap rooms must fill in a form, with their supervisors, to explain why they need sleep. Scott stresses, however, that there is no stigma associated with napping, and she is the only one who sees the completed forms.

“If you need a sleep there’ll be a reason for it, so we just want to look at the controls and mitigating factors we have in place,” she says. “I think there’s been a bit of napping going on without an official form, but the guys are getting used to the idea now, and starting to realise that there’s no comeback if they say they need a nap.”

After some 27 years as a shiftworker, control room shift supervisor Roy Blake doesn’t see fatigue as a particular issue for him, but still thinks the sleeping facilities are a great idea. He has himself taken a nap a couple of times, he says, when his daytime sleep has been disrupted.

“The guys also like to use it before they go home in the morning, so they can have a quick catch-up nap before they drive.”

While older hands have developed their own fatigue management strategies over the years, Blake says the project has brought a change of attitude among younger workers.

“I like that it’s brought to light how important it is to get enough rest,” he says. “We work two twelve-hour days, two twelve-hour nights, then four days off, and this has helped the guys understand that they don’t get those four days because they’re good looking. They need to use them to recover.”

The nutritional information was also important he says, because some workers had a tendency to eat heavily at the end of a shift, not realising it could interfere with their sleep. “Now they have their breakfast about 4.30am so they’re not digesting it when they go to bed, and that means they sleep better.”

BOWEL SCREENING

Last year, building on the success of the bladder screening project, the company decided to also offer bowel screening. This time the participation rate was not as high, with just under a third of staff joining in – perhaps, Scott suggests, because people were more squeamish about the nature of the sample to be provided. However she is delighted that most of those in the highest risk demographic – the over 50s – did get involved, and seven people who would otherwise have had no reason to question their health were able to get pre-cancerous lesions safely removed.

Bowel screening is again on the schedule for next year she says, and this time she’s expecting participation rates to be up.

MULTIPLE NEXT STEPS

Scott is now planning a pilot project to expand the present skin check regime into an extensive lesion mapping programme for all outdoor workers, provision of quarterly ear microsuction, a subsidised weight loss plan, and “a real push” in the areas of mental health and stress reduction. She’s no fan of talking heads, however, so is looking for innovative ways to implement these programmes.

“I’m a lateral thinker – rather than have someone stand up and give a lecture on something I prefer to work with people at a more personal level, helping them make good choices.”

But if her delivery approach is unorthodox, she always has a good evidence base for the ideas behind the initiatives.

“I keep abreast of lots of research, so I know what coming,” she says. “Medicine changes quickly, so there’s always something new – and I’m fortunate to have really good management support for my ideas. I don’t get it all my own way, but they’re very receptive.

“We like innovation here, and we like to be forward thinking, but we do risk running out of things to do.”

Continuous improvement

Methanex’s director of manufacturing, Brian Ropitini, knows better than most the value of having a good workplace wellness scheme.

It was a routine health assessment at Methanex more than a decade ago that picked up his type 2 diabetes, a condition that might otherwise have gone undiagnosed for years.

“I could have carried it around for a long time before it was identified, and would probably be in worse condition today than I am,” he says.

He’s since made use of the fitness assessments and nutritional advice in the wellness programme to help manage the condition, and believes the package as a whole has made a positive difference to his health.

A proactive approach to staff wellness has been part of the company’s ethos for a long time, he says, but under Scott’s leadership the programme continues to grow and evolve.

“There’s a desire for continuous improvement,” he says. “Christine is a great advocate, and the initiatives she brings to us are easy to support because they’re great ideas. She’s quite advanced in her thinking – typically she suggests things that aren’t being done elsewhere.”

JACKIE BROWN-HAYSOM

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