Occupational and public health and safety in a changing work environment: An integrated approach for risk assessment and prevention

During recent years the work environment has undergone significant changes regarding working time, years of employment, work organization, type of employment contracts and working conditions (EASHW, 2002b; Storrie, 2002). For example, changes may include increase of retirement age, increase in daily and weekly working hours, ‘‘deregulation” of working hours, temporary and part-time work, labour leasing, outsourcing, subcontracting, self employment, down-sizing of enterprises, increased workload and time pressure for workers.

These changes have already been implemented in several acts of legislation within the European Union (EU), such as Directive 2003/88/EC on Working Time, Directives 97/81/EC – 98/23/EC on Part-time Work and Directive 1999/70/EC on Fixed-term Work (Council Directive, 2003/88/EC; Council Directive, 1997/81/EC; Council Directive, 1998/23/EC; Council Directive, 1999/70/EC). Many studies in Europe and worldwide have revealed data regarding theses changes. Data may differ depending on the country and the study group (EASHW, 2002a), however, they are useful for stressing the changes in the work environment.

The presentation that follows is not exhaustive, since this is beyond the scope of the paper. Regarding working time, in 2005 the 4th European working conditions survey reports that in the EU-27, 50% of employees of the study group have flexible daily working hours, 40% had no definite starting and finishing time for the working day, 30% work flexible working days per week and 20% work 1–3 Sundays per month (EASHW, 2007a). More than 15% of employees worked over 48 h a week. In 75% of cases examined, working hours and schedules were solely defined by employers. Another study reports that in 2006, 18.1% of workers were involved in part-time work (31.1% female and 7.7% male workers) (EFILWC, 2008).

Consequences of changes in the work environment on public and occupational health and safety

In this section literature findings are presented regarding consequences on occupational and public health and safety related to changes in the work environment. We focus on the consequences related to changes in working time, working patterns and work organization. The study is not limited to consequences related to the occurrence of occupational accidents. Consequences on workers health and social life, as well as public safety, are also discussed.

Flexible working time and over-time work

Changes in working time and employment relationships may lead to psychological and behavioural disorders. For example, stress, burnout, depression, excessive alcohol use, and smoking (Quinlan, 2007; EASHW, 2007a; Cooper, 2006; Antoniou et al., 2003). Several studies report that employees with irregular working hours and rotating shifts, suffer more frequently from psychological problems (Martens et al., 1999; Harrington, 2001).

Some studies suggest that non-standard working patterns are related to sleeping problems, increased rates of depression and suicidal ideation (Kim et al., 2006; Harrington, 2001; Martens et al., 1999). Adjusting working schedules to circadian rhythms is a primary criterion for workers’ health and safety. Several studies correlate the disruption of circadian rhythms caused by rotating shifts and night work with carcinogenesis (especially breast and prostate cancer) (Davis and Mirick, 2006).

Types of employment contracts – organizational flexibility – job insecurity

Job insecurity related to changes in the work environment is correlated with higher frequency of occupational accidents and also with mental, emotional and physical exhaustion . There is evidence that consequences of job insecurity may be as detrimental as job loss itself. Furthermore, job insecurity may affect family life. The threats of job loss and worsening of working conditions correlate with stress, depression (Burgard et al., 2005; EFILWC, 2002b), and sleep disturbances. Other studies show that job insecurity leads to an increase in adverse behaviours and consumption of tranquillizers (Domenighetti et al., 2000).

In a study conducted by Kivimaki et al. (2003) the deaths from alcohol-related causes were almost two times higher in temporary employees than in permanent employees and the mortality due to smoking–related cancer was nearly three times higher in temporary than in permanent employees. Other studies also correlate job insecurity and occupational stress with increased blood pressure, increased adrenal hormone levels, metabolic disease, obesity, peptic ulcer, derangement of digestion and cardiovascular morbidity (Ferrie, 2001).

Public safety

Changes in the work environment may contribute to a greater probability of occurrence of major accidents in major hazards plants affecting workers and the public, as well as the environment. A factor which may influence the level of safety in major hazards facilities is that many activities are held by subcontractors. There have been cases of major accidents related to lack of training and inadequate monitoring of safety measures due to the use of subcontractors (Dechy et al., 2004; Uth and Wiese, 2004). Another factor influencing public safety in a changing work environment is the difficulties arising in effective emergency planning and response procedures.

Women, young and elderly workers

Women and young people represent a significant percentage of the workforce working under flexible conditions, i.e. flexible working schedules and working contracts (EFILWC, 2002b). In addition, women still handle the major part of family duties leading them to withstand extra stressors to the ones related to the working environment (Chandola et al., 2004; EFILWC, 2002b).

Young workers’ lack of experience, their physical and psychological immaturity and lack of awareness of OSH rules become additional sources of occupational risk (EASHW, 2007b; Breslin et al., 2007). In addition, OSH impacts are expected as a result of the increase in retirement age, and of longer working periods. Prolonged working life participation lead to musculoskeletal disorders (EFILWC, 2002b). Older workers are more susceptible to occupational risks, due to inherent health problems and due to the accumulation of harmful effects from prolonged chronic exposure to hazardous factors.

Social consequences

Apart from occupational health and safety hazards, poor living environment and unsatisfactory housing conditions are well documented to have harmful effects on workers’ health and well-being (Papazoglou and Michaliou, in press; Nylen et al., 2001; Barten et al., 2008). Working hours represent a very important factor that influences workers’ social balance and well-being.

Shift work, non standard working hours, ‘‘deregulation” of working hours and restriction of leisure time, all deteriorate workers normal social and family life (Spurgeon, 2003). For example, when the notice of weekly working hours or change in schedule is too short, sometimes just one day in advance, it can be difficult to adjust nonworking duties, such as childminding (EFILWC, 2002b). Employment without a contract, job insecurity and unemployment have similar effects on workers.

Risk assessment and prevention in a changing work environment

Several measures have been suggested in order to reduce harmful effects on workers from flexible regimes. For example, the provision of social support is intended to decrease job insecurity. This approach of combining flexibility with security has led to the introduction of the neologism ‘‘flexicurity”.

Suggested measures include initiation of evaluation procedures regarding the impact of flexibility on OSH, widening and harmonizing OHS regulations in the EU, redesigning regular access to training, distribution of good OHS practices, etc. (Goudswarrd, 2002; Commission of the European Communities, 2007). However, by considering all the aspects regarding impacts of the changing work environment mentioned in the previous sections, significant difficulties arise in the process of risk assessment and implementation of relative preventive measures.

These difficulties are related to each of the perspectives mentioned in Section 2 separately and in total build up a complex problem. More precisely, in order to apply preventive measures for occupational and public health and safety, risk assessment must be conducted for each task and for each worker. This risk assessment must consider all hazards and their interactions and must be revised when changes occur (Drivas and Papadopoulos, 2004).

However, frequent changes regarding workforce, working hours and working conditions, as well as time pressure, result in insufficient time for conducting a complete and effective risk assessment, determining training needs, setting up, applying and monitoring the corresponding OSH measures. Furthermore, the methodological tools used in risk assessment up to now are not sufficient for this complex situation.


Author: Gerasimos Papadopoulos, Paraskevi Georgiadou, Christos Papazoglou, Katerina Michaliou