Health and Safety Service occupational medicine specialist
Tell us about your role
Occupational medicine is about the effects of work on health and of health on work. For the Taranaki DHB I assess and look after the staff rather than the public, and provide advice on their capacity to perform their work with the primary goal of helping staff to remain in their jobs or advise on changes of functional limitations because of their health.
My work can involve any area of medicine but includes a lot of musculoskeletal issues often associated with ACC injury claims, the effects of chronic health conditions on capacity, mental health problems and of the increase of age related issues as people want to continue to work.
I assist in pre-employment assessments of ability to perform new roles and vaccination policy. I undertake workplace hazard identification, elimination or minimisation of those hazards and need for any health surveillance from workplace exposures. I also liaise with other DHBs to develop national guidelines and advice on employee health and particularly recently on COVID-19 work.
Tell us about your team, and your department?
Jackie Heaphy is the manager of the Health and Safety team which includes an Occupational Health nurse and two Health and Safety advisors.
Are you working on any special projects?
I’m a member of the 20 DHB Occupational Health Advisory Group to the Technical Advisory Service (TAS) of the Ministry of Health. This was started up during the COVID lockdown period to develop advice and guidelines on staff assessments of vulnerability to complications from COVID and work placement or restrictions. Work continues on development of COVID-19 related guidelines to clinicians and managers and is now addressing other national issues such as pre-employment screening and vaccine preventable immunisations for hospital staff.
I’m the current Chair of the Aotearoa NZ chapter of the Australasian Faculty of Occupational and Environmental Medicine of RACP, and sit on other committees including the NZ RACP Policy and Advocacy Committee, Australasian AFOEM Examination committee and examiner, and the Health and Safety Association of New Zealand (HASANZ) Governance Committee.
What’s your background, how did you get to this point in your career?
As a teenager at my summer job I saw the rows and rows of people working at benches in this huge dingy factory preforming repetitive tasks and wondered why they chose to be there. They of course needed the work and the money it brought for themselves and their family to live, but was there more to it than that? I think some fascination remained in me to answer this question.
I later went to medical school in my city of birth in Cardiff, Wales and then gained general medical experience over four years including a year of General Practice resulting in the MRCGP(UK) qualification. During that training I became aware of opportunities in Occupational Medicine and completed a second four year training programme to obtain specialist qualification as member of the Faculty of Occupational Medicine (MFOM London). I was the company doctor in a chemical factory employing 5000 staff manufacturing highly hazardous chemicals as well as other factories manufacturing fertiliser, lithium, resins and optical fibre. I was also the medical advisor to the Manchester Ship Canal company which had its 200 year anniversary when I was there.
My career moved into Health and Safety legislation when I become the Medical Inspector for Wales for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
Since moving to New Zealand in 1998 I’ve worked as a consultant and occupational physician to Waikato DHB Occupational Health department. I became the chief advisor for Health and Safety for the Department of Labour for six years, a time of building inspectorate capability, strategy and policy development and regular visits to the ‘Beehive’. I have been the corporate medical advisor to ACC.
I now work as an independent occupational physician working for three DHBs – Mid Central, Southern and Taranaki – doing similar work as well as performing medical assessments for ACC and a variety of other employers.
What’s the best thing about your job?
Removing road blocks and facilitating understanding between employers and treatment providers to assist people through injury and illness to remain in work and continue to obtain the health benefits, financial security and self-determination provided by employment.
What inspires you to keep doing your work?
My experience is in the world of workers and work which is of course only a limited portion of the population served by health care providers. I see work as a privilege and an important way of contributing to society. There is limited understanding of the health benefits of (good) work which I believe contributes to the quality of life of individuals, whānau and society. People living with chronic health conditions and disability often want to work and feel excluded by their inability to obtain work. In my experience there is rarely any validity for the inequitable access to employment on health and disability grounds, which cannot be overcome with understanding and support.