The report identifies the most important topics for occupational safety and health (OSH) research in the coming years. These fall under four themes: demographic change; globalisation and the changing world of work; safe new technologies; and new or increasing exposures to chemical and biological agents. It also stresses the importance of risk communication and translating OSH research into practical workplace solutions.
Too many workers leave the labour market permanently as a result of health problems or disability, and too few people with reduced work capacity manage to remain in employment. Spending on disability benefits has become a significant burden on public finances and hinders economic growth as it reduces effective labour supply.
Although the main factors predicting disability are, to a large extent, known, there is only scattered information available from workplace intervention studies aimed at the prevention of disability in long-term settings. Irrespective of diagnosis-related issues, further research on the determinants of return-to-work outcomes, based on longitudinal data, is required. This research must take into account more thoroughly the complexity of processes related to the development of long-term sickness absence and disability, as well as successful reintegration after illness.
Globalisation and the changing world of work
In the past, globalisation has often been seen as a more or less economic process. Nowadays, it is increasingly perceived as a more comprehensive phenomenon that is shaped by a multitude of factors and events that are quickly changing our society. It has created more opportunities for economic development, but it has also intensified competition and increased economic pressure, resulting in companies restructuring and downsizing and business activities being outsourced and offshored. The consequences for workers include job insecurity and work intensification
OSH and new technologies
OSH research has a key role in contributing to the development of safe, new technologies. A global shift towards a greener and more sustainable economy exposes workers to traditional OSH hazards; however, the new test is how to deal with the exposure to a combination of old risks within new settings and conditions. Means by which to transfer existing knowledge to new applications and working environments need to be identified.
Furthermore, the current speed of expansion in green jobs will also lead to a skills gap and a reliance on a large number of inexperienced and/or under-skilled workers who will be handling and interacting with new or unfamiliar technologies. As with any new and developing technology, workers in ‘green jobs’ will also be exposed to new hazards, which probably have not been previously identified. These ‘green’ challenges can be met only by developing safe working processes together with workplaces that fully exploit new processes and technologies.
Increasing occupational exposure to chemical and biological agents
Innovations necessary to improve productivity and regain competitiveness according to the Europe 2020 strategy are likely to result in new challenges for OSH: new or increased exposure to biological and chemical agents, as well as mixed exposures. The burden of ill health at work is already heavy: 23 million people in the EU reported a work-related health problem in 2007.
The majority of work-related fatalities are attributed to work-related diseases, almost half of which are due to exposure to hazardous substances at work. European statistics show that the number of fatal occupational accidents is decreasing, whereas the fatalities due to occupational diseases are increasing. Moreover, a growing number of allergies, asthma and illnesses related to sensitisation have been observed in workplaces. Their onset is associated with exposure to chemicals and biological agents present in the working environment.
Access the full report “Priorities for occupational safety and health research in Europe: 2013-2020” here.
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