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Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard OSH Solutions - Thomson Reuters

Safeguard Magazine

It’s academic—Risk exposure inequality

Māori workers are more exposed to risk at work than non-Māori, even allowing for socio-economic status and other factors. HAYLEY DENISON reports.

It is well recognised that Māori are over-represented in manual, lower-skilled, and therefore often more hazardous jobs. These different employment patterns contribute to higher work-related injury rates for Māori, but it is unclear whether it also affects disease risk. Are Māori more exposed to factors at work that could contribute to poor health, independent of injury? When we at the Centre for Public Health Research began looking into this we were unable to find an answer. Information about risk factors for occupational disease among Māori workers is limited, and there had been almost no investigation of how occupational exposures compare between Māori and non-Māori.

International research documenting ethnic patterning of risk factors for occupational disease is also limited. One example, from the United Arab Emirates, showed that exposure to pesticides varied significantly among groups of different nationality.

To investigate if occupational exposures differed by ethnicity in New Zealand we conducted a national survey (the New Zealand Workforce Survey) in two waves, with the second wave focusing on Māori workers. In total, the two waves surveyed 2344 Māori and 2710 non-Māori, contacted using the electoral rolls. We asked participants questions about their current workplace exposures, including dust and chemicals, physical exposures and organisational factors, and about their use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

This allowed, for the first time, robust comparisons of occupational exposures between Māori and non-Māori workers.


The study showed that Māori were over-represented in the more manual occupational groups such as plant and machine operators and assemblers, and elementary occupations (eg labourers, cleaners). The study found that, overall, Māori more commonly reported exposure to risk factors than non-Māori. This was to be expected given the occupational patterning identified. However, what was concerning was that when we matched Māori workers with non-Māori workers by job title (as well as by age and socioeconomic status or SES), Māori workers were still more likely to experience risk factors at work for injury and disease.

A difference by ethnicity in physical risk factor exposures was especially evident, even after taking into account gender, age, SES and occupation. This indicates that Māori workers are more likely to carry out physical tasks than non-Maori, even within the same job. For example, both Māori men and women were twice as likely to perform heavy lifting, Māori women were twice as likely and Māori men three times more likely to be exposed to loud noise, and Māori men were also almost three times more likely to regularly use tools that vibrate.


Organisational factors that contribute to poor health were also differentially distributed according to ethnicity. Among both men and women, Māori workers were twice as likely to be carrying out repetitive tasks and to be working to tight deadlines. The proportion of Māori women working night shifts was almost double that of non-Māori (7.8% vs 4.1%).

The study showed there was little difference in use of PPE among Māori and non-Māori women, but that Māori men were less likely to use hearing protection and gloves/protective clothing. This is concerning since Māori men more commonly report being exposed to loud noise, although these findings may be related, as less hearing protection results in greater perceived noise exposure.

While this research did not examine the reasons behind the differences in exposure, it showed that ethnicity is related to risk factors independently of socio-economic status and employment patterns, which suggests that work tasks may be unequally distributed according to ethnicity.


This could be a sign that unconscious bias is operating in the workplace, putting Māori at greater risk of injury and disease. For example, heavy lifting can cause lower back pain and hip and knee osteoarthritis, and loud noise exposure has been associated with both hearing loss and heart disease.

Given the adverse health effects associated with occupational exposures, it is plausible that inequitable exposure to occupational risk factors is contributing, at least in part, to the well-documented health inequities between Māori and non-Māori. This research suggests that the contribution of the occupational environment to health inequities between Māori and non-Māori has been underestimated, and that more needs to be done to provide a more equitable working environment for Māori in New Zealand.

Dr Hayley Denison is a researcher with the Centre for Public Health Research at Massey University.

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