The pandemic has brought occupational safety and health from the margins to the centre. Investment should follow.
Occupational safety and health (OSH) has long been an important topic in the world of work. In past years, however, it has been pushed into the background where standards are already high and because other topics, such as digitalisation, have become dominant in the public, policy and academic discourses on work and employment. Could the Covid-19 pandemic however provide the context for a reinforcement of OSH?
The pandemic has certainly underlined its importance. On the one hand, many workers—particularly in frontline service occupations—are confronted with the risk of contagion, as social interactions with customers, patients and similar groups cannot be avoided. These exchanges may also be more challenging, with increasing instances of verbal and physical aggression.
On the other hand, emotional and other mental demands have risen. In healthcare, for example, nurses have to cope with not only higher work intensity but also their patients’ difficult situations and even their death due to the virus.
Workers who have predominantly worked from home may be faced with hazards, too, if entirely different ones. They work in isolation and possibly without the (social) support of managers and colleagues. If they have care responsibilities, it can be a challenge to balance those with their jobs.
Thus, hazards have come to the fore during the pandemic which need to be addressed by OSH-policies within the European Union. The 1989 Council of the EU directive on health and safety at work (89/391/EEC) encourages ‘improvements, especially in the working environment, to guarantee a better level of protection of the safety and health of workers’.
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With recommendations available from various supranational institutions, countries have adopted different strategies to respond to the current situation. Germany has quickly implemented a specific OSH rule, while Spain has declared Covid-19 an occupational disease for healthcare workers.
Guidance stemming from the council directive specifies how physical and mental hazards should be identified and captured, using workplace risk assessments. Risk assessment can be defined as ‘the systematic identification and evaluation of relevant hazards to employees with the aim of determining the necessary measures for safety and health at work’. The goal is thus to identify and prevent work-related hazards.
A multi-level (and multi-actor) system is at the base of the regulation of work-related hazards. This includes legislation at EU level which member states translate into national measures. How they deal with this varies greatly, particularly regarding risk assessments for mental hazards. In some countries, failure to carry them out is punished (in Denmark, a prison sentence of up to one year is possible), whereas in others (such as Germany) organisations may only be fined after several reminders about their obligation.
Unsurprisingly, workplace risk assessments are more likely to be carried out in countries with tougher sanctioning mechanisms and reporting requirements for organisations. Relatedly, discrepancies arise between legal requirements and actual implementation of measures, as not all organisations carry out workplace risk assessments regularly. According to the European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER), 88 per cent of organisations in Denmark carried out a general risk assessment in 2019, whereas in Germany only around 65 per cent did so.
Furthermore, risk assessments are more widespread in large organisations, as well as in manufacturing and the public sector compared with private services. Employee-representation structures, more prevalent in large organisations and particular sectors, likely play a role. Depending on the country, employee representatives may have information, consultation or even co-determination rights on OSH and may actively promote risk assessments.
Thus, depending on country, sector and establishment size, workers may have unequal access to workplace risk assessments and OSH policies. Yet the pandemic affects all member states, sectors and organisations, even if exposure differs, for instance among occupational groups. All workers should have access to the best possible protection in their workplace, in accordance with the directive.
Healthy and safe workplaces are vital to keep the economy running, so reinforcing OSH is in the interest of workers, organisations and policy-makers alike. By investing in OSH, the costs of work-related accidents and illnesses can be reduced, and absenteeism minimised.
Indeed, it has been demonstrated that every euro invested in OSH pays back more than double for an organisation. Yet according to the ESENER survey, this has not been generally recognised: organisations’ primary motivations for carrying out risk assessments are fulfilling legal obligations (88 per cent) and avoiding fines from the labour inspectorate (79 per cent).
The pandemic could be the context for a renaissance of OSH and, specifically, workplace risk assessments. It could encourage organisations to see the real value of risk assessments, instead of only performing them as an obligation.
Moreover, the pandemic underlines that OSH is a dynamic topic, implying reconsideration and/or reinforcing of existing standards, rules and paradigms. This is particularly relevant for mental hazards: although considering them is often legally required in workplace risk assessments, practical implementation is frequently patchy.
Lastly, the institutional structures of OSH should be reviewed to provide more equal access to policies and provisions. Workers in small establishments and in private services may be faced with access and protection gaps, even though service workers who regularly interact with customers or patients are currently particularly exposed. Such gaps should be addressed when reassessing the OSH landscape.
Although the pandemic involves many challenges for the world of work and its manifold actors, it could also be an opportunity to reinforce OSH in European workplaces, for the protection of all workers.
Nadja Dörflinger is a senior scientist in the 'Changing World of Work' department at the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA), Germany. Her research interests include employment relations, labour markets, trade unions and service work in a comparative European perspective. Jonas Wehrmann is a research associate in the department and a PhD student at Kassel University.