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The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) was formed in 1994 with a mandate to reduce accidents and fatalities, to promote safer workplaces and safer working practice. EU-OSHA collects data in order to monitor existing problems, as well as thinking ahead to identify new and emerging issues.
Its own statistics show that each year within in the EU there are:
3 million serious accidents;
25% of the workforce considering work to have a negative effect on their health;
A total cost in lost productivity of 3% of EU Gross Domestic Product (GPD).
Since the 1990s, European and national policies have been implemented with the dual goals of increasing the general employment level as well as extending the time (the number of employed years) the average worker is able to fulfill.
The current target of the European 2020 strategy is 75% employment for workers between the ages of 20 to 64 years. Not only does this mean European workers will work for a greater portion of their lives, they will also work later into life.
EU-OSHA has identified from its research that the workforce is ageing. It has a directive to ensure that older workers are retained for as long as possible. Its forward-looking research will make recommendations towards the health and safety of this identified sub-section of the workforce and accordingly, will focus on this group as a priority case. Other priority groups include disabled people, working women, young people and migrant workers.
I will look into the resources directed specifically towards the older workers and analyse the effects these are having in the workplace.
EU-OSHA’s research recognises that age-related ability loss varies considerably from person to person. It identifies as “difficult to quantify” the differences between individuals’ healthiness and considers pre-existing conditions, diet, the physicality of the work and the hazards faced within the workplace.
By changing focus, in order to use statistical information to define the problems experienced by the older worker, a clearer picture emerges which can then be split into three overlapping main areas of concern.
The first of these are the musculo-skeletal disorders which tend to manifest as a worker ages. Heavy lifting and repetitive workloads are highlighted, as are the problems encountered when working in extreme environments: hot, cold or noisy.
The EU-OSHA also notes the cumulative damage that develops when in the presence of hazardous substances.
The research identifies not only the most obvious areas such as construction work and chemical factories; it also identifies problems that are common among those who work with very young children – who need, for example, to be lifted. Workers in the hospitality industry are also at risk, as is ambulance staff due to a combination of heavy lifting, awkward posture and repetitive strain injury.
Industrial workers are highlighted; not only can they suffer from the aforementioned, they can also suffer from the cumulative damage caused by vibration.
The second issue highlighted by the statistics is the number of problems experienced by the more sedentary office worker. It becomes clear that while too much physical activity wears out the body, not enough can also be harmful.
A third point noted by the EU-OSHA is the management of return to work after a longer term sickness. It notes that a well-implemented return to work is preferable to the increasingly common practice of using tools such as early retirement and ill-health retirement, which are detrimental to the efficiency of the company.
While the negative aspects of an older workforce are easy to identify using statistics from a broad range of data sources, the EU-OSHA highlights the positives of the older worker.
It identifies the knowledge pool that longer term workers will have accrued and acknowledge that, while physically less capable, a motivated older worker will know the job well, be able to mentor younger workers and – crucially – be able to do a good job while making few errors.
Analysis presents clear trends; data dating from the 1980s shows that in the UK, Europe, America and Japan the average age of the worker is getting higher while the birth rate is declining – leading to a reduced ‘supply’ of younger, fitter workers.
This has been recognised and in order to meet the challenges created by the shift in average working age in an ever upwards direction, organisations such as the EU-OSHA become ever more important.
Their goal is to identify groups and support them by changing workplace culture through a combination of legislation and campaign. Primarily a workgroup whose goal is to increase European efficiency, they work to support those workers marginalised by the short term thinking of big businesses.
Older workers who have so much to offer are often overlooked despite their wealth of experience, practical knowledge and more pragmatic approach to achieving workplace goals, they are rightfully included into the priority groups the EU-OSHA is most concerned about.
For context, the European Union has at present 28 member counties; each country has a different population level ranging from the largest with 80 million+ (Germany) while other have fewer than two million. Not only do the member states differ hugely by landmass and population, there are also great differences between individual productivity levels and the industry’s most prevalent in member states.
In a Europe-wide context, some countries have well-established health and safety organisations. In the UK the controlling body is the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) the Germans are directed by the German Health and Safety Strategy (GDA). In France the Ministry of Labour implements through the ‘Conseil d’orientation sur les conditions de travail (COCT)’. Some of the less populated/less wealthy European members have less mature health and safety organisations.
The EU-OSHA is not a legislative body, instead it acts as an organisation tasked to research, campaign and to advise the various member states’ own safety executives.
By identifying issues with a Europe-wide context, the EU-OSHA has access to data generated by the 28 countries and almost 750 million citizens that form the EU. With this information, it identifies the most relevant areas for improvement and presents themed strategies, tools and information to help countries, their governments and organisations to improve the safety, health and productivity levels across the trading bloc.
At present, the first theme highlighted on the EU-OSHA’s website relates to ageing. The relevance to organisations such as the UK’s Health and Safety Executive is the incentive to work with the EU-OSHA and other similar countries to develop workable strategies to ensure workers are best protected and supported as they age.
An example of the EU-OSHA’s advice which has been followed in the UK is the replacement of the sick note with the fit note. The fit note is intended to give the employer more information about a sick employee’s ability to carry out their regular work. Following diagnosis, the fit note can carry recommendations that the employer should follow. These recommendations can set out a recovery plan, set boundaries for some activities (often physical) or limit the working hours.
This replacement to the sick note has been implemented as research has shown that it is usually better for the employee to return to work as early as possible. With the medical profession dictating an employee’s capability at work, management should find suitable duties, an added bonus being a reduction in the stress level of an employee as they should feel they are not being pushed back to full capacity too quickly.
The EU-OSHA is an organisation with a pan-European remit. Headquartered in Bilboa, Spain, its motto is ‘Making Europe a safer, healthier and more productive place to work’ it has connections to all member countries in Europe and while it advises on the bare minimum guidelines, its purpose is to promote and build a robust health and safety culture throughout the whole zone. Some countries prefer to exceed the guidelines and this is welcomed by the EU-OSHA, when it analyses data and finds that an improved standard introduced in one country is shown to be beneficial, it will campaign for its adoption Europe-wide.
The EU-OSHA acts as a feed point to disseminate statistics and analysis to the whole of Europe with its clear objective. It provides this data freely to government and organisations with a view towards positive change.
For the older worker, the EU-OSHA’s work may well have a positive impact on the structure the individuals work with adjustments made when required. For the Health & Safety representative, knowledge of the priority areas the EU-OSHA has identified are worth being aware of, considering they drive improved legislation.
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