Christa Sedlatschek
Christa Sedlatschek © Georg Wilke

Protecting employees’ health and safety is a moral and legal imperative. But good practice can also help attract the best staff and even help win market share. Companies wanting to increase productivity, improve profitability or enhance workforce wellbeing should, therefore, take a closer look at occupational safety and health.

In Europe we can be proud our working conditions are the best in the world, but there is a lot that we need to do. The most recent survey by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), covering 50,000 establishments across 36 countries, showed over three-quarters of workplaces report one or more psychosocial risks such as excessive workload, working with difficult customers or job insecurity. Yet only one-third have a plan in place to prevent work-related stress.

Work-related stress and work-related musculoskeletal disorders such as back pain are a major concern in Europe: 37 per cent of workers in the EU report working all or almost all of the time to tight deadlines; 62 per cent carry out repetitive hand or arm movements; and 34 per cent almost always have to work at high speed. In 2015-16, according to statistics from the UK Health and Safety Executive, stress, depression or anxiety accounted for 45 per cent of working days lost to ill health in Britain, and work-related musculoskeletal disorders for 34 per cent.

Even leaving aside avoidable pain and suffering, the economic cost of work-related ill health and injuries is estimated to equate to 3–5 per cent of the EU’s GDP. Ill health and injuries are also responsible for about 4,000 avoidable deaths, due to accidents and about 160,000 deaths due to work-related illness every year. Over the years we have seen a steady decrease in occupational accidents, but the same cannot be said of cases of work-related illness, such as occupational cancers, mental health problems or musculoskeletal disorders.

The good news is something can be done to reduce this burden. We spend a third of our life at work, so it is only sensible to think about promoting good health in the workplace, through steps such as raising awareness of the benefits of good nutrition and regular exercise. However, there is a risk of focusing on the individual, rather than taking action at the organisational level. Policies to ensure a manageable workload, good staff relations and adequate training require significant management commitment but have a far greater impact and coverage of all staff than the provision of “fruit and Pilates” that will only be taken up by a few.

EU-OSHA runs two-year campaigns; the current one promotes a healthy and safe environment throughout working lives in the context of the ageing workforce. These campaigns promote action. Persuading managers and workers to participate is an important precursor to success: effective interventions are neither top-down nor bottom-up, but involve the whole organisation.

As an EU agency, we face challenges in health and safety just like any other employer. We are a relatively small organisation, so work pressure can build very quickly — it only takes a couple of urgent requests to come on top of our usual commitments and our workload mounts. We work closely with staff health and safety representatives, who survey staff at EU-OSHA to help management establish priorities.

Recently we have been working to manage the workload better through improved planning and efficiency and better definition of roles and responsibilities. We provide coaching over the phone to EU-OSHA employees and — prompted by interest from staff members — have started short mindfulness sessions once a week as well as regular voluntary stretching sessions. A decade ago, we started replacing fixed-leg desks with ones with height-adjustable legs.

Our official campaign partners, which include companies and organisations in the public and private sector, are just as active. In March this year, for example, a branch of German software multinational SAP received our Good Practice Award for its Run Your Health initiative. Height-adjustable desks introduced into its offices reduce the risk of staff developing musculoskeletal disorders and encourage employees to move more frequently throughout the day. The company has offered fitness trackers to help staff monitor their progress.

PSA Group Spain won recognition for the development of age-sensitive risk assessments. The aim is for each task to be completed by as many different workers as possible, regardless of physical limitations or age. Such interventions can help organisations tackle the challenges posed by an ageing workforce.

For Europe’s managers, investing in efforts to prevent and reduce workplace risks to safety and health makes unassailable good sense. The costs of not doing so are greater than the costs of taking action. There are tools available to help organisations analyse and tackle risks; a good place to find these is the EU-OSHA website.

For policymakers, a range of strategies are available, including providing incentives and making recommendations for good occupational safety and health management. We have some good examples to share.

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