New Zealand Authorities Concerned About Workplace Amputations

Workers in New Zealand are losing hands and fingers at an alarming rate, according to the country's Department of Labour.

The agency estimates that accidental hand and finger amputations in the workplace are occurring more than three times a week, on average. Since 1997, the department had been advised of more than 1,500 workplace amputations, and has prosecuted more than 200 employers for related injuries since the Health and Safety in Employment Act was enacted in 1993.

Hand and finger amputations are the most common traumatic accident in New Zealand workplaces, according to Department of Labour Health and Safety Chief Advisor Mike Cosman.

"On average, 14 people suffer finger and hand amputations at work every month, and the department prosecutes an average of 18 companies or individuals every year," Cosman says. "Court penalties alone for amputations have cost almost $1.5 million over the past 12 years a staggering amount lost to industry.

"Other costs to business, including lost productivity, low staff morale, damage to plant or equipment, hiring and training of new staff, etc., are more difficult to quantify."

The Department of Labour recently prosecuted meat processing company PPCS after a worker at Richmond Takapau lost parts of two fingers in a meat pulverizer. The machine had been turned off, but was still winding down when the man put his hand in to remove some trapped meat.

PPCS, which exports sheepmeat, beef, venison and other meat products to about 60 countries, was fined $5,000 and ordered to pay the worker $12,000 in compensation.

The company since has modified the machine so that access to it is delayed for 1 minute to ensure it has fully wound down, according to the Department of Labour.

Another five companies currently are facing prosecution over finger amputations.

Amputations Can Happen Anywhere

Fixed machinery accounts for the majority of accidental workplace amputations, with saws and cutting and mincing equipment the most often to blame, according to the Department of Labour.

Cleaning and maintenance, as well as routine operation, pose the greatest risk.

"Anywhere where machinery is present represents a risk, and we strongly urge all employers to take a serious look at any machinery their staff work with and make sure that not only is it safe to use, but that people are properly trained," Cosman says.

Amputations are most likely to occur in the food processing industry, which includes meat processing, and the metal and wood product manufacturing industries, according to the agency.

But Cosman notes that amputations could happen almost anywhere.

In recent years, the agency had investigated accidents in which people in a bar, a library and a bank all suffered amputations.

Even places as innocuous as playgrounds, stairs and seats have caused finger loss.

Cosman says the economic and emotional cost of workplace accidents for workers and their families could never be measured in dollars.

"Amputations are particularly nasty accidents, because they can seriously damage a person's self-esteem and affect the way people interact with them," Cosman says. "The loss of a limb can make everyday tasks such as picking up children or writing a letter next to impossible. People often have to relearn activities that they previously took for granted, and no dollar amount can compensate for that."

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