What do we know about Indigenous occupational health?

An Interview with Dr Brett Shannon. Dr Shannon is a Ngugi man and an OEP trainee with Phoenix Occupational Medicine. A strong advocate for positive change, he is also undertaking his PhD with University of Illinois, Chicago on the topic of Indigenous Occupational Health. Dr Shannon has worked in various roles within the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Controlled Sector, including as previous chairperson to the Brisbane Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Community Health Service.

What do we know about Indigenous occupational health?

Need for leadership

In marking National Reconciliation Week, 27 May – 3 June 2022, we spoke to Dr Brett Shannon about his research and invited him to share his approach.

 "As an Indigenous medical professional, I believe we need to show leadership by continuing to promote all dimensions of Indigenous health including the healing strengths of connecting with family, country and culture and ensure culturally appropriate healthcare is delivered across all levels of the health system."

Dr Shannon recently presented his review of 'First Nations Engagement with, and Experience in the Workplace' at the Australian and New Zealand Society of Occupational Medicine (ANZSOM) annual scientific meeting held earlier this year.

Indigenous occupational health data not being collected

Dr Shannon concluded that despite the knowledge of the persistent disparity in non-occupational injury affecting Indigenous populations and adverse employment conditions, there is a paucity of research regarding occupational injuries and illnesses of Indigenous populations in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States.

New Zealand and Canada provide examples of use of Indigenous identifiers on Workers Compensation data that provides a unique surveillance system for capturing incidence comparisons of:

  • occupational health outcome
  • return to work
  • impairment consequences.
"Given our emerging understanding of injury and illness exposures and the role these play in terms of excess morbidity and mortality in Australia, it is clearly a high priority area for evidence-based policy development and implementation." [Dr Shannon]

The data from general injury surveillance highlights issues faced by Indigenous Australians. The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Performance Framework details key findings including the sobering high rates of death of Indigenous Australians:

  • transport accidents was 2.4 times as high as for non-Indigenous Australians
  • accidental poisoning was 2.6 times as high as for non-Indigenous Australians
  • assault was 6.3 times as high as the rate for non-Indigenous Australians.

We don’t yet have specific data on Indigenous Australians' experiences of occupational injuries and illnesses. Because it isn’t being collected – yet.

So what kind of data should we be collecting?

The factors that influence decision making in this regard will require quality data on injury causes and effects such as for:

  • workplace injuries
  • priority populations
  • the role of chemical, biological and physical agents and related injury.

This data requires analysis of complex underlying socio-economic, workplace and environmental determinants along with multifactorial decision-making processes.

Where to next?

In his current position, Dr Shannon is working with stakeholders to affect research, policy and practice through development of an agenda and investment in Indigenous occupational health and safety to develop surveillance and prioritisation of Indigenous health needs in the workplace.

We look forward to hearing about the next phase of Dr Shannon’s research.


1. https://www.indigenoushpf.gov.au/measures/1-03-injury-poisoning#keyfacts

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