(14 March 2022) The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work recently published a study, examining the main occupational safety and health (OSH) risks for human health and social work sector in Europe. Workers in this sector are exposed to a wide range of risks to their health and well-being, which include any form of exposure to biological agents, including risks related to Covid-19, chemical risks, ergonomic risks and psychosocial risks. The aim of the study is to evaluate the specific OSH risks that the workers are exposed to, based on three waves of ESENER surveys conducted in 2009, 2014, and 2019. The final report also includes interviews with OSH experts and stakeholders from the sector, including EPSU and ETUI. The research questions addressed in the report are evaluating the main OSH risk factors, assessing how OSH is managed and what aspects influence the management of OSH in the sector, including worker participation. The questions are answered using a mixed-method approach and compare the findings with other sectors and between different European countries. The study provides the following key findings.
The acknowledgement of psychosocial risks at the workplace, especially in relation to the Covid-19 pandemic, is crucial to cultivate a culture of acceptance and reduce the stigma around mental health issues. Many of the workers in acute care facilities, such as hospitals, suffer from post-traumatic stress. Further, the study suggests that mechanisation and digitalisation can play an important role in reducing ergonomic risks in the sector, as new technical possibilities offer the chance to take on tasks that normally bear the potential of causing harm to the workforce. This includes the introduction and use of digital technologies such as wearable and AI devices, which can be used to enable the assessment and prediction of workplace risks and prevent accidents. Nevertheless, it is important to bear in mind that digitalisation tools are supposed to help reduce stress rather than increase it.
The study further indicates that there is a range of OSH risk reducing strategies in place already, especially regarding bullying, harassment and abuse from external parties. This basis can be used to further ensure action to respond to the psychosocial risks related to Covid-19. This relates to the finding that training and awareness-raising are essential tools in reducing OSH risks at the workplace. This can be especially important to work environments that are less controlled, such as non-residential care. The study suggests that the sector is also performing quite well in the discussion of OSH issues, which, combined with the effort to exchange best practice in the sector and within the different sub-sectors, should be a continuous focus to improve risk assessment and OSH awareness. Furthermore, the involvement of employee representatives and employees in OSH management is an advantage for risk mitigation, which should also be built further in the sector.
Finally, the study underlines that the human health and social work activities sector has suffered greatly from the Covid-19 pandemic. Particularly, the hospital sector was affected severely. The situation could be used to improve OSH in the sector nevertheless, as the links between the sector and public health policies were strengthened. The study therefore confirmed EPSU's position that staffing shortages need to be addressed to fundamentally improve OSH in the human health and social work activities sector.