EU sets out research priorities for occupational safety and health

Paul Boughton

In 2004the European Commission asked the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work to produce a short report identifying future EU research needs in the field of occupational safety and health (OSH). The Commission intended to use this report as input into its preparations for the seventh research framework programme.

Given the time constraintsthe Agency agreed to prepare this short report as an update of the priorities identified in the its 2000 publication Future occupational safety and health research needs and priorities in the Member States of the European Union.

This report is therefore structured around four major themesreflecting those priorities: psychosocial work environmentmusculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)dangerous substancesand OSH management.

The division into these themes is primarily for ease of referenceand it is not meant to indicate fixed boundaries between topics. Many OSH problems are interrelated andthereforebest treated in a holistic manner. This has been indicated in the report in various relevant placesfor exampleregarding the relationship between psychosocial factors and musculoskeletal disordersor the issue of adapting to an ageing workforce from different perspectives.

Furthermoreoccupational safety and health issues are also closely related to other research areassuch as environmental protectionpublic health or economics. Indeedthe Commission strategy states: “Well-being at work cannot be brought about simply by way of health and safety policy: there are strong links with the way work equipment is designedwith employment policywith policy on disabled peopleand with other policies like transport andof coursehealth policy in generalwhether it be preventative or curative.”

The four main sections are preceded by a brief consideration of global trends in OSH and the EU policy frameworkin order to set these themes into the relevant scientific and policy contexts. Within the four themeseach key issue is introduced with a short description highlighting its importance as a research priorityfollowed by some suggestions for general and specific research questions.

Psychosocial work environment

The far-reaching changes that have been occurring in work organisation and designand in contractual relationships at workare associated with the emergence or aggravation of psychosocial problems. There is growing concern for the negative effects this may have on employees’ health and well-beingthe quality of workand the creativity and innovation needed by organisations in current markets.

At the same timeresearch is needed to develop and test “organisational interventions to improve the psychosocial work environment”with a special emphasis on the prevention of work-related stress and physical and psychological violence.

MSDs have been consistently identified as a priority for preventive action by the member state OSH authorities. According to Eurostatthey are the most common work-related health problemand EU working conditions surveys suggest that the problem is increasing in some respects. Reducing the musculoskeletal load of work and associated risks is part of achieving the Lisbon objective of creating quality jobsby enabling workers to stay in employmentand ensuring that work and workplaces are suitable for a diverse population.

Two main priorities have been identified. Firstlythe development of tools to assess the total load/overload on the body’s musculoskeletal system. Ergonomists currently recommend that risk assessment should consider the total load on the bodyand not separate between handling heavy loads and other postural strains.

Secondlyassessment/evaluation methodsintervention methods and prevention measures in relation to certain gaps in knowledgeespecially some overlooked MSDs (such as standing work and other static work)particular sectorsevaluation methods suitable for a diverse workforceand new sources of risk – for example with regard to the principles of good design for new technology such as a multi-screen workplacesnon-keyboard computer input devices and the use of handheld computers.

A vast and increasing number of chemicals are present in workplaceswith about 100000 different substances currently registered in the EU market. The chemical industry is Europe’s third largest manufacturing industryemploying 1.7million people directlywith up to three million jobs dependent on it.

Exposure to dangerous chemicals occurs at many workplaces outside the chemical industry: for exampleagricultural workers use pesticidesdetergents and microbiological dustsand construction workers commonly use solvents and paints. According to the third European survey on working conditions (2000)16percent of employees in the EU handle or are in contact with dangerous substances for at least one quarter of their working time.

There are three main priorities. First is the validation and improvement of models for worker exposure assessmentincluding skin exposure (measuringmodelling and risk assessment). There is much information on exposures to dangerous substancesbut no overviews for particular work activitiesespecially those traditionally carried out by women.

The second area of concern is the exposure to nanoparticles and ultrafine particles.

The rapid growth of nanotechnology (leading to the development of new materialsdevices and processes) is outstripping our understanding and knowledge of the occupational health risks associated with manufacturing and using nanomaterials. Minimal information is available.

Finallyassessment and measurement methods for workplace exposures to biological agents are still very much at an experimental stageand there are no limit values for occupational exposure to biological agents. It is necessary to develop a systematic mapping of workplace exposurescovering the biology of the micro-organisms involvedexposure routeseffectsmechanismspreventive measuresmedical surveillance and rehabilitation.

OSH management

The nature and organisation of work are changingbecoming more client- and knowledge-driven. The workforce has also been changing; it is ageingless male-dominatedmore precarious and more difficult to monitoras it has spread out into small companies. As a consequencehealth issues have become more complex and we need to find new ways to improve OSH in this context of profound changes.

Since the Lisbon summitthe focus has been placed on the economic dimension of OSHin other wordsthe economic impact of health at workand – more generally – the effects of quality of work and employment upon Europe’s competitiveness in the world arena. This includes issues such as the overall cost of social non-qualitycosts connected to conditions of work (including accidents and health-related absenteeism)and the development of management and accounting tools integrating the OSH dimension.

The other major issue demanding attention is the long-term effect of working conditions on healthand the specific contribution made by occupational factors to the overall burden of ill-health. European and national surveys provide a picture of health at work and of working conditionsbut there is a clear need for a Europe-wide longitudinal survey on health at work to design policies aimed at reducing work-related inequalities and preventing health risks in specific groups and occupations.


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