KANBrief 4/15

Changes in the world of work: a challenge for occupational safety and health

The world of work is undergoing major change. This observation was made repeatedly in numerous lectures, workshops and discussions at the 5th EUROSHNET conference in Seville. Digitalization, automation, demographic change and globalization are just some of the buzzwords. We have picked out of the main thoughts for you.

The topics being discussed in occupational safety and health today are quite different from the topical issues of only a few years ago. Whereas the focus previously lay more upon product safety, the rapid changes in the underlying conditions of work have now acquired much greater importance.

Brave new world of work

In the future, workers will find themselves in much looser working arrangements, particularly with greater flexibility in their location and working hours, said Kris De Meester (Federation of Enterprises in Belgium [FEB]). For example, he anticipates that employees will no longer be recruited in order to fill a particular job, but that the work will instead be adapted to each individual's skills profile. The task of management personnel will no longer be to plan, supervise and organize, but to ensure the motivation and further development of their workforce.

The business environment is also undergoing major changes. The lifespan of companies is falling. According to Kris De Meester, the average life expectancy of an SME is barely six years.

It was noted in numerous contributions that in consideration of all these developments, the conventional instruments of occupational safety and health need to be re-evaluated. Traditional top-down approaches are no longer sufficiently effective. A further aspect is that the changeable nature of the new structures is not readily compatible with today's rigid concepts of training and regulation.

Inspiring technology

Technology will also undergo continual further development. Digitalization is only the beginning. Dirk Watermann of the KAN Secretariat cited examples of current research projects: concerning drones, nanorobots for the treatment of cancer, for gene therapy and for diagnostic purposes, and genetically modified viruses that construct batteries and turn into components.

It is still uncertain how occupational safety and health should address many of these developments. On what basis can the safety of new products and systems be tested when standards governing them do not yet exist, and a recognized state of the art has not been formulated? The first step for occupational safety must therefore be to conduct more detailed research into the new risks associated with the developments.

Demographics: a new challenge

The topic of demographic change was also raised numerous times at the conference. Jesús Álvarez Hidalgo of the European Commission's Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion stated figures that give pause for thought: the number of employees aged between 55 and 64 will rise by 16% between 2010 and 2030. The quality of working life will therefore acquire high practical relevance. The aim must be for working life to be made sustainable from the first day onwards, in order for employees to be able to remain in their jobs for longer. One way in which this is achieved is for conditions of work to be adapted to the employees much more than has been the case to date.

Off-the-peg rules not suitable for SMEs

It was emphasized several times at the conference that small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) require particular support in coping with the pending changes. Carlos Arranz (National Institute of Safety and Hygiene at Work, Spain [INSHT]) stressed that SMEs provide more than half the jobs in Europe, but must contend with structural disadvantages in the area of occupational safety and health. The frequency of serious accidents increases strongly with decreasing company size. Occupational safety and health regulations are also observed much less closely in SMEs, since such businesses are often quite simply overwhelmed by the task. The solution is for complex regulations to be simplified, practical instruments to be made available, and greater awareness to be created for the benefits of occupational safety and health.

Norbert Breutmann (CEN Strategic Advisory Board for Occupational Health and Safety [formerly SAB OHS]), Kris De Meester (FEB) and Antti Koivula (Finnish Institute of Occupational Health [FIOH]) were in agreement that the change in the world of work also presents opportunities. Complaining about the situation is not the solution, said Breutmann. On the contrary: the occupational safety and health community must face the new technical and social challenges proactively and constructively.

Sonja Miesner            Michael Robert

miesner@kan.de  robert@kan.de