As costly and debilitating as injuries and illnesses can be, the field of workplace safety and health should be researched like cancer and strokes are, said a speaker at this week's Queensland Safety Conference in Australia.

Roger Kahler, principal consultant and director of The InterSafe Group, said workplace safety should be researched scientifically.

Kahler pointed to lower mortality rates due to the major killers — heart disease, stroke and cancer — and said the scientific rigor that has saved lives from disease could also save lives at work.

"This change occurred through motivated individuals who have perceived and understood the problem," he said.

"In their search for truth, they use appropriate models, they form and test hypotheses and make deductions that result in courses of action which produce deliverable results. Why should occupational health and safety be any different?"

In the year 2000-01, Kahler said the total direct and indirect cost of workplace injuries, ranging from permanent damage and death, to minor sprains and bruises, to Australian business and society was $34.3 billion.

"To set this cost in context, it was approximately twice the cost of running our army for that year, and exceeded coal, iron ore and wheat exports for the year 2001-02," Kahler noted.

Adequate data on the causes of injury at work would see the number and cost of these injuries fall, Kahler insisted.