11 Apr 2023

Mortuary workers were exposed to potentially dangerous amounts of formaldehyde

6:39 am on 11 April 2023
A funeral director pushes a coffin into a hearse, their body is coloured to symbolise toxic chemicals

The embalming fluid used by mortuary workers typically includes formaldehyde, which requires careful management to mitigate the risks to a person's health. Photo: RNZ / Robert Whitaker and 123RF

Some mortuary workers at the country's largest funeral home operator were exposed to potentially dangerous amounts of formaldehyde.

InvoCare says it cannot give staff their individual testing results, but one embalmer says he wants to know if he's been personally exposed to the carcinogen.

The ASX-listed InvoCare, which runs 40 funeral homes, crematoriums and cemeteries employing 262 staff, was warned more than a year ago that workers at three of its 15 mortuaries had been exposed to nearly twice the recommended safe level of formaldehyde while embalming, according to internal documents seen by RNZ.

Formaldehyde, one of several toxic chemicals found in embalming fluids, can irritate the skin, eyes, nose and throat while longer-term exposure can cause myeloid leukaemia and rare cancers.

Because of the dangers, mortuaries must put in controls to reduce the exposure risk. These may include specialist air ventilation systems, use of PPE and respiratory masks and health and exposure monitoring.

InvoCare confirmed some of its testing results were "above" recommended safety thresholds but "corrective actions" have since been put in place.

'Improvement notice'

In August 2021, WorkSafe issued InvoCare with an 'improvement notice' after the company admitted it did not have an effective nationwide system in place to monitor the health of its mortuary workers.

The health and safety regulator ordered the company to engage a "competent person" to advise it on how to carry out nationally consistent health monitoring of its mortuary workers, including "fit testing" of respiratory masks.

Exposure monitoring needed to take place first to determine the parameters for a health monitoring programme, InvoCare said.

Exposure monitoring detects the amount of chemical a person is being exposed to while at work. Health monitoring determines if their health is being affected by this exposure.

A month after receiving the improvement notice, InvoCare told employees to halt any health monitoring that had been taking place while it found a national provider.

WorkSafe closed the file in October 2021. A year and a half later, staff are still waiting for health monitoring to resume.

WorkSafe says the 2021 improvement notice issued to InvoCare only required the company to engage a competent person.

"[InvoCare] engaged a competent person and the improvement notice was lifted," a spokesperson said in a statement.

InvoCare says health monitoring will restart once exposure monitoring is completed at eight remaining sites by the end of May.

'Concerning results'

Preliminary results verbally presented to InvoCare in February 2022 showed high levels of formaldehyde in the air at three mortuaries, a former InvoCare executive told RNZ.

"The three sites failed workplace exposure standards and the preliminary results showed that formaldehyde was present around 1 part per million."

This was nearly twice the recommended short-term exposure limit for formaldehyde, which was set at 0.6 parts per million. This is the maximum average amount a person should be exposed to over a 15-minute period in order to protect their health.

Formaldehyde exposure was likely to be much higher in other scenarios, the whistleblower claimed.

"These tests were carried out while only one deceased was being embalmed.

"In some locations you can have up to three deceased being embalmed at a time, so the concentration of chemicals would be even higher."

A rose sits on top of a coffin, it is coloured to symbolise toxic chemicals

Photo: RNZ / Robert Whitaker and 123RF

She had been warning the company since 2019 that some embalmers were not using PPE properly and it was not known if air filtration systems designed to dilute toxic vapours were effective.

In an email dated 15 March 2022 to senior executives, seen by RNZ, the whistleblower reiterated her concerns about the unsafe levels of formaldehyde detected during the testing and warned that in her opinion many of its mortuaries, if not all, were failing to comply with several other health and safety regulations.

These included lack of chemical handling training, failure to track usage, non-regulation storage of chemicals and poor use of PPE.

"It was assumed the air exchanges [in mortuaries] were enough to reduce the risk of chemical exposure. No air monitoring had been done to validate this."

The executive resigned from the role at InvoCare in July 2022 following a restructure.

"Lip service to health and safety"

Former InvoCare embalmers, who RNZ has agreed not to name, claimed health and safety at the company was often not a priority.

"I blew into a spirometer once," a former embalmer told RNZ of his several years at the company. He left in 2020.

Another former mortuary worker said she was given a "bulky and uncomfortable" mask when she joined in 2021 that had previously belonged to the employee she replaced. There was no fit testing to ensure it fitted properly. She ended up buying her own.

One mortuary worker said he paid for his own annual health testing because InvoCare had offered him none.

"They pay a lot of lip service to health and safety but it's very, very poor on actions."

InvoCare responds

InvoCare said the information referenced by the whistleblower and others "does not reflect the current state of InvoCare's NZ operations."

"The company follows all proper Work Health and Safety processes and procedures as specified by WorkSafe NZ and the Health and Safety at Work Act (2015)."

It says additional exposure testing was carried out in May, June and July last year. A final report with recommendations was made in September and it communicated "overall" findings to affected employees in December 2022.

Last month, exposure monitoring results for individual sites at one mortuary in Hamilton and two in Auckland were shared with affected employees, it said.

"As results became available, comprehensive action plans were initiated to address the recommendations of the exposure monitoring assessments.

"In instances where monitoring results were above the Workplace Exposure Standard (WES) thresholds, these were essentially due to specific local issues which were addressed in local corrective / preventive actions - rather than a company-wide process, process deficiency or error," InvoCare said.

'People need to know'

An employee who attended one of the March meetings, who RNZ has agreed not to name, said individual testing results were not shared.

One of the results showed formaldehyde levels in the air had exceeded safe levels "by quite a bit", but he had no idea if he had been personally exposed to it.

"The people working there need to know. There are embalmers around the country working in mortuaries all day, for years."

While he always wore respiratory protection he was not sure the masks he had used over his time with InvoCare even protected against formaldehyde, and he had never been fit tested for one.

He had worked at many InvoCare mortuaries and had seen poorly fitted disposable masks being used.

"A mask only protects the person wearing it. We have funeral directors enter and exit the mortuary all the time. They're definitely getting exposed."

InvoCare said all mortuary workers had since been fit tested with masks or provided with respiratory hoods that did not need to be fit tested.

Contract embalmers working in Tauranga were the only ones yet to be fit tested, but this would be done pending their availability.

A funeral director carries a cremation urn, their hands are coloured to symbolise toxic chemicals

Photo: RNZ / Robert Whitaker and 123RF

Conflicting views

It was not "practicable" to evaluate individual exposure results due to the different ways embalmers worked and their adherence to the use of controls, InvoCare said.

"Therefore it is not deemed appropriate to reference single measurements when reaching conclusions about compliance/non-compliance to workplace exposure standards."

The law also prevented them from giving each worker their own results, it said, citing the Health and Safety at Work (General Risk and Workplace Management) Regulations 2015.

While the regulations state exposure monitoring results are "readily accessible to any person at the workplace who may be, or may have been, exposed to the health hazard," a following clause states any results "must not contain any information that identifies or discloses anything about an individual worker," InvoCare said.

WorkSafe said that law did not apply to the industry because the chemicals found in embalming fluids, like formaldehyde, only had "Workplace Exposure Standards", which were "guidelines for health risk management".

Employers, however, were "encouraged" to share exposure monitoring results with employees, it said.

Health and safety experts spoken to by RNZ suggested personalised exposure results should be given to affected workers.

The Health and Safety at Work Act was the "overarching" law that had to be taken into account, Massey University occupational health and safety senior lecturer Ravi Reddy said.

"The Act says workers need to be aware of the hazards and risks they are exposed to and the [employer] must so far as is reasonably practicable ensure that the risks are eliminated or mitigated.

"Is it not reasonable to provide workers with detailed exposure and individual monitoring reports?"

University of Otago professor of occupational and environmental health David McBride agreed.

"Another part of the Health and Safety at Work Act says that you have to give employees information and training to protect against risks in the workplace."

McBride's view is that giving employees information included sharing individual test results with affected workers.

WorkSafe said that part of the Act "may be interpreted" by employers or others as a requirement to provide information to workers, and it "encourages passing on information to workers".

But air quality testing results "do not themselves 'protect all persons from risks'," it said.

It was the controls that are put in place to reduce the risk that were important, and it was up to the employer to determine what controls were best used, WorkSafe said.