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R&D for a Healthier, Longer and More Productive Working Life

Submitted by on 16 Sep 2011 – 12:25

PEROSHNele Roskams, European Affairs Coordinator, Partnership for European Research in Occupational Safety and Health (PEROSH)

PEROSH, the Partnership for European Research in Occupational Safety and Health, is committed to evidence based research and development activities for a healthier, longer and more productive working life. The partnership, founded in 2003, comprises 13 Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) institutes, employing approximately 1,000 researchers and advisors, and affiliated to national authorities and health insurance systems in Europe.

Research and development

In line with the EU2020 strategy for inclusive growth, one of the aims of the PEROSH research is to contribute to healthy, safe and sustainable workplaces keeping people healthy and longer at work. A joint and transnational collaboration to maintain, improve and transfer existing knowledge on working life issues is of crucial importance to make sure that European society can adequately react to the future societal challenges.

PEROSH aims at giving a wider European voice to working life research. To accomplish this, the partnership is committed to reinforcing and coordinating the research and development efforts in occupational safety and health, and to create a broad European network not only via the member institutes but also with the European organisations, and other stakeholders such as research consortia, social partners and governments.

Besides the sharing of research knowledge and information, the PEROSH partners collaborate on specific fields of common interest. Currently more than 80 researchers are working together in the research projects that have been set up within the partnership. Research topics include work and well being; musculoskeletal disorders; ageing of the workforce; safety of nanotechnology and nanoparticles, the development of a clearing house for systematic reviews in OSH; the development of a cross-culture methodology and criteria for the improvement of EU comparative data; determination of standardised workplace protection factors for respiratory protective devices and the promotion of safety culture and of a zero accident vision at the workplace.

European OSH challenges

While the rising globalization of the world of work including new forms of work and new technologies (such as biotech, IT and robotics) are leading to new risks, a number of classical risks remain.

Employability is one of the big societal challenges faced by European countries. Demographic changes are already leading to a decreasing workforce. To address the societal challenges there is a need for sustainable interventions to extend working life and to prevent premature retirement, and a need for strategies to maintain and improve work ability. Life-long learning, meaningful work and improved employment quality, as well as rehabilitation schemes have to be further developed and attuned. Until now, only little attention has been given to the contribution of OSH aspects to employability.

The prevalence of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) as well as mental health problems are on the rise and have important consequences for individuals as well as society.

The coming Danish EU presidency is tentatively working on an overall theme of renewal. Two of the key priorities within this theme are: renewed economic growth and a renewal of the role of the EU in the world. The final priorities of the government will only be decided later in 2011. In order to restore economic growth and strengthen the global role of EU, the work force has to extend working life and become more productive. To bring this about, it is necessary to improve the prevention of MSD – and especially the prevention of the consequences of MSD in the form of sickness absence, early retirement, and reduced productivity. (See title below for an example of the Danish approach to primary and secondary prevention of MSD).

Nanotechnology has a great potential for innovative solutions in manufacturing and life sciences. However, a number of health risks remain unknown. It is essential to attain the societal benefits of nanotechnology while minimizing or eliminating the risks of adverse health effects in workers and consumers, as well as the environmental risks.

Regarding the chemical working environment we are faced by a number of research challenges such as exposure to and toxic effects of carcinogenic, mutagenic and reprotoxic substances due to the introduction of new chemical substances or an increase in the use of existing substances. Also, we need to explore exposure and hazards of biological agents in the working environment due to the increasing number of “green jobs”, e.g. within waste processing and recycling.

As the European objective of a reduction of 25% in the number of occupational accidents will probably not be attained, it is essential to continue to work on innovative and (cost)-effective strategies to reduce workplace accidents.

An increased collaboration at the European level between researchers, stakeholders at workplaces (employees as well as employers) and policymakers would improve the coverage, quality and applicability of research and transfer the evidence based knowledge more effectively to the workplaces.

Tackling musculoskeletal disorders: The Danish Tripartite Agreement

As part of the Danish national prioritization of the working environment effort in the period 2005-2010, the National Research Centre for the Working Environment (NRCWE), a member of PEROSH, was commissioned to undertake two systematic reviews concerning MSD. This was agreed upon by the government and the social partners (employers and employees). The focus of the first review was on how to reduce MSD-related sickness absence and improve return to work of employees with MSD. The focus of the second review was on risk factors causing MSD.

On the basis of the findings and recommendations of these two reviews, the social partners and the Working Environment Authority (WEA) agreed upon the Tripartite Agreement on MSD in June 2010. According to the agreement, the MSD-effort consists of three parts: 1) Reduction of risk factors (primary prevention), 2) Reduction of sickness absence (secondary prevention), and 3) Improvement of return to work. This is a major step forward compared with the past efforts which almost exclusively focused on primary prevention. The agreement also states that MSD must be understood within a bio-psycho-social framework, meaning that the future effort must take into account both biological, psychological and social factors.

Despite decades of efforts to reduce MSD among employees, we have not been able to reduce the prevalence of MSD in the Danish working population. The agreement lays out a plan to update the research based knowledge behind the Danish prevention efforts. A key element of this plan is a research project, headed by NRCWE researchers, which will measure MSD exposures among Danish employees, test their physiological response during the working day and compare this with their self reported exhaustion after a working day. Later in 2011 the partners behind the tripartite agreement on MSD will discuss whether the results of the project should lead to a change of working environment regulations.