Trends in Occupational Health & Safety

TONY MANGAN

Health and Safety Consultant at EazySAFE

Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) has grown in importance in the past decades as governments recognise the cost of poor health and safety, and employees recognise the benefits of prevention. Many more stakeholders now recognise that prevention pays. There are two aspects to OHS: work related injuries, and illness as a result of work, and their relative sizes varies in different parts of the world. Today we take a closer look at the latest OHS trends globally.

Global Trends

It has been estimated that there are 2.3 million work related deaths annually. Of these 2 million have been attributed to work-related disease, and 0.3 million to occupational injuries.  In developed countries, most work-related deaths are work injuries, while in less developed countries most deaths are as a result of work-related illness [1].

Globally, occupational safety is improving as more countries recognise the need to improve safety in the work place. Occupational health however appears to be declining. The rate of serious accidents also appears to be declining. Governments are introducing more legislation and policy to improve OHS as they see the benefits of having a healthy workforce in terms of human cost, productivity and national economy. Similarly, employers and employees recognise the need for prevention.

Working conditions in many countries are very poor, and the more recent recession has adversely affected Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) particularly in these regions. Low-skilled workers, migrants and young people have been particularly hit throughout the world. Globalisation has had a significant impact on many workers, and psychosocial health issues have risen in many areas as a result of out-sourcing, automation and reduced security of employment. This can lead to increased stress and a greater prevalence of mental illness.

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has estimated that 4% of annual Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is lost due to occupational accidents and illness, including lost time at work, lost output, medical expenses and social payments.

There has been a decline in work place injuries over the long term. However there has been an increase in the number of occupational fatalities due to the transfer of industry (particularly hazardous industry) from well-developed countries to Asia.

The European Union (EU)

The EU contains over 217 million workers, and to help protect them, the European Commission has adopted a new Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work 2014-2020 [2]. It seeks to improve the implementation of existing health and safety legislation, improve the prevention of work-related illnesses, and to take account of the ageing workforce.

Over half the population of Europe are workers. Europe exhibits many of the OHS characteristics as other developed regions. Fewer people die of workplace accidents than work related illness. Eurostat have estimated that in the EU27 (as it was in 2009) 3.2% of the workforce suffered from an occupational accident, while 8.6% reported experiencing a work related illness.

As an example of this, while asbestos has been banned in the EU, the number of deaths as a result of asbestos has been rising due to exposure in the 1960s. In the UK, the number of deaths attributed to asbestos has been rising and is expected to peak in 2015-16.

Ireland

In 2015 the ESRI published a report examining occupational health and safety covering a period of rapid economic growth (2001-2007) and a period of recession (2008-2012). These economic changes brought about large sectoral changes in employment, where the largest employers were in construction and retail, and in recession these sectors shrank while there was growth in the service sector. There were also changes in the age, nationality and gender of the work force.

Keeping a wide range of factors constant, the research found that there was a significantly lower risk of occupational injury or illness during recession than in boom. The researchers suggest that during boom times, employees feel under more pressure, work longer hours and with less supervision.

It was found that within sectors, where employment grew, there was a higher rate of risk of injury or illness.

The study also sought to determine what factors cause work-related injury or illness. Men were significantly more liable to experience a work-related injury than women. Migrants suffer from work related injury less. This was unexpected and may be as a result of under-reporting by non-nationals, and they were less likely to have been involved in the quarterly house survey which contributed data to this study. Men and women experience the same level of occupational illness during boom times, but in recession, women fare less well. Where hours of work vary greatly, there is an increase in illness and injury. This becomes particularly important as the prevalence for zero-hours contract grows. Also, with the growth of mobile technology, many people engage in work during their leisure time. New employees are more at risk of injury than longer-term staff.

New and Emerging Risks

New and emerging physical risks include: physical inactivity, lifestyle at work and obesity.

Occupational injuries form a small part of the overall death rate in developed countries. The focus is now shifting to long-term illness such as cancer, musculoskeletal disorders and psychosocial factors. Psychosocial risks include job insecurity, work intensification, work-life balance, bullying and harassment at work.

Conclusions

In the developed world, longer-term work related illnesses are gradually increasing in importance at workplaces. As new employees are a higher risk of injury than those employed for a longer period, employers need to focus on training and supervising them at an early stage. Shift work and variable working hour’s impact on illness and safety. Employers and employees need to recognise the benefit of alternative work patterns. In less developed countries, the significance occupational illness plays in overall disease need to be considered.

With the increase in globalisation and sub-contracting, businesses may move more dangerous operations to third parties, thereby improving their visible H&S record, while damaging the health and safety of workers in smaller businesses or poorer countries who do not have the resources to implement high H&S standards.

There are many more ways to keep employees engaged, including toolbox talks, online training, home safety, effective communication, insurance, bulletin boards, newsletters and so on.

The most important thing is that you have an engagement plan in place and that employees see that an effort is being made to engage with them, just make sure you have some fun while doing it!

References 

  1. International Labour Organisation (ILO) (2011) Global Trends and Challenges on Occupational Safety and Health, XIX World Congress on Safety and Health at Work, Istanbul, September 2011. Available at: http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/@ed_protect/@protrav/@safework/documents/publication/wcms_162662.pdf
  2. Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion (2014) Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Strategic Framework 2014-2020. Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/social/main.jsp?catId=151&langId=en
  3. ESRI (2015) Trendsand Patterns in Occupational Health and Safety in Ireland. Available at: https://www.esri.ie/publications/trends-and-patterns-in-occupational-health-and-safety-in-ireland/
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