Knowledge Gaps and Research Directions in the Changing World of Work and the Safety and Health of People
Organisational practices have changed dramatically in recent years. To compete more effectively, many companies have restructured themselves and downsized their workforces, increased their reliance on non-traditional employment practices that depend on temporary workers and contractor-supplied labour, and adopted more flexible and lean production technologies.
Fears have been raised that these trends or resulting in a variety of potentially stressful of hazardous circumstances, such as reduced job stability and increased workload demands. Data suggest, for example, that working time has increased dramatically in the last two decades of prime-age working couples, and that workers in the United States now log more hours on the job than their counterparts in most other countries. On the other hand, increased flexibility, responsibility, and learning opportunities seen in today's jobs may hold potential for improved satisfaction and well-being in the workforce. In reality, however, the revolutionary changes occurring in today's workplace have far outpaced our understanding of their implications for work life quality and safety and health on the job.
Around the world, research is being carried out by various occupational safety, health and environment (OSHE) organisations looking into various aspects of the working environment and how it affects the workers. We can see how Sweden is pacing the advances in psychosocial aspects of the working life, the UK with a number of specific research areas, and the European Commission through the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work and The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions are concerned with topics such as:
- new technologies: growing use of information and communication technology
- growing occupations in the Service Sector, with specific risks (ergonomics and personal contact with people, stress, violence)
- new types of work, such as telework, self-employment, subcontracting, temporary employment
- integration and globalisation
- ageing workforce
- raising employability through new qualifications, increasing interest in autonomous work
- organisations have become flatter, smaller and leaner
- growing number of small and medium enterprises in which health and safety knowledge is insufficient
- increasing working hours, work pace and work load
These factors in turn affect the changing world of work with:
- New forms of (work) organisations
- New working environments
- New forms of contractual relationships
- New patterns of working time
- Growing use of new technologies
- Growing proportion of workers in the Service Sector
- Changes in the workforce
All of which have implications on occupational safety and health.
What is happening in the USA
The US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has developed, as a first attempt, a comprehensive research agenda for investigating and reducing occupational safety and health risks associated with the new organisational practices that have change dramatically in the new economy.
This gap in knowledge about safety and health effects on the changing organisation of work has been recognized as one of the priority areas for research under the National Occupational Research Agenda. This is a concerted process by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health - NIOSH and its partners to target and coordinate occupational safety and health research into the next decade. Over 500 organisations and individuals contributed to the Research Agenda. The outcome to-date is presented in a report(1).
Four areas of research and development are targeted in the agenda.
First, an urgent need exists to implement data collection efforts to better understand work exposure to organisational risk factors for illness and injury, and how these exposures may be changing.
Second, much greater research attention needs to be given to the safety and health effects of prominent trends in the organisation of work that have arisen in recent years. Process re-engineering, organisational restructuring, flexible staffing are prime examples of practices that are increasingly prevalent but insufficiently studied from an occupational health and safety perspective. For example, despite growing concern that inexperience resulting from variable and short-term job assignments may place temporary workers at increased risk for illness and injury, little data exists on safety and health outcomes among these workers.
Third, the need exists for intervention research targeting organisational practices and policies that may protect worker safety and health. Improved methods are needed to overcome the many obstacles confronting intervention research in workplaces, and a closer examination is needed of factors influencing the motivation and capacity of firms to implement organisational interventions to protect worker safety and health.
Finally, progress towards understanding and preventing safety and health risks posed by organisational factors will require a much stronger public health commitment to this field of study. Steps need to be taken to formalise and promote organisational work as a distinctive field of study within occupational safety and health, to develop the multi-disciplinary training essential for research in this area and to improve research funding opportunities
Strategic alliances among key stakeholders will be fundamental to advances of this nature. Stakeholders will be government agencies, industry and industry associations and federations, and the many professional disciplines with interests in the organisation of work, e.g. occupational and public health, organisational behavioural and job stress specialists.
We will watch to see how the US progress this massive task.
For those wishing to read more:
1. US NIOSH Report The Changing Organisation of Work and the Safety and Health or Working People. DHHS NIOSH Publication No. 2002-116,2002, 32 pages, www.cdc.gov/niosh
2. European Agency for Safety and Health at Work: http://osha.europa.eu/en/riskobservatory
3. The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions: www.eurofound.europa.eu
4. UK Health and Safety Executive: www.hse.gov.uk