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Thoughts from Dr Jukka Takala as he leaves the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) on 15 September 2011

September 2011

Dr Jukka Takala took over as Director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) in September 2006 and leaves on the 15 September 2011. As Director of the Agency Jukka is the legal representative of the EU-OSHA and responsible for its management and day-to-day running, including all financial, administrative and personnel matters.

Dr Jukka Takala comes from Finland and has worked in the occupational safety and health field for more than 30 years. He is a mechanical engineer by training and holds a doctorate in technology from the Tampere University of Technology.

Before joining EU-OSHA, he worked for the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as Director of the International Programme on Safety and Health at Work and the Environment (SafeWork), ILO's largest programme in social protection. Earlier he worked for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration of the Government of Finland.

Since its creation in 1996, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work has been contributing to safer, healthier and more productive workplaces. People all over Europe have the right to work in a safe and healthy environment and the Agency is working continuously to achieve this. One of our main goals at the Agency is to identify and share good practice in order to achieve genuine safety and health and promote a risk prevention culture across Europe.

Changing work environments create new risks that need to be addressed in new ways. Service industries are now the main employer in Europe and psychosocial and organisational demands are becoming more and more relevant. Besides accident prevention, in the coming years we need to look more closely at lifetime health issues.

Traditional prevention measures might have to be replaced or complemented by holistic approaches and innovative practices. Health and safety practitioners will need to pay more attention to these areas of health promotion in the workplace. Also, we need to look beyond the established mortality statistics. The real scale of work-related problems, which includes work-related diseases and not just accidents, may be many times greater. The Agency has a key role in making these wider health effects understood.

The ethical component of our message continues to be important, but we also need to emphasise the economic feasibility of what we are advocating. We all have a common goal - to better protect Europe's workers and to nurture and support Europe's enterprises.

Dr Takala says "We at EU-OSHA take prevention very seriously. This is of course part of our corporate social responsibility and we try to provide workers, including me, with the best ergonomic and psychosocial support, as these are the main risks we face in our workplaces.

I am convinced that a holistic approach to good health also includes work-related health. So I try to keep fit and live a healthy life, based on the famous concept of the World Health Organisation: not only absence of illness, but also well-being, in the three dimensions - physical, social and psychological. Good health habits, such as eating a balanced diet, not smoking, and taking regular physical exercise can contribute to this approach".

I love occupational safety and health at work and it has dominated my life for a long time. I believe deeply in fighting to obtain the best possible working conditions for every single worker in Europe and beyond. I find my work particularly rewarding when I can contribute to this major objective".

As Jukka finishes his Directorship at the European Agency he writes the following in answer to the questions posed:

  1. How do you see the development towards an ideal condition of occupational safety and health prevention in Europe at present?

    JT: The economic crisis and concentration on the government debt issues in Europe has shifted the emphasis to measures tackling these issues directly. The link between work and working conditions to economic sustainability is not always easily seen. Lifting the age of retirement is a powerful measure to reduce the sustainability deficit. Adding, say, two years of wage earnings rather than the worker obtaining pension benefits, creates enormous amounts of wealth. For each person there will be one more "contributor to GDP" rather than one more relying on others' contributions. However, this cannot be done just like that by using administrative measures to lift the pension age.

    If someone has a disability, such as a back problem, allergic reactions or depression caused by or contributed by work the person will not be fit to continue working the day the pension age is administratively increased. One cannot just look at the official retirement age, often around 65 or even 68, but what is the real retirement age.

    Due to disabilities caused at an early age, such as burnout and depression in the early 30s, or construction workers unable to continue at work beyond 55 years, the real retirement age is much lower, e.g. in Finland it is 59 years, rather than the expected target 68, and the working career seldom goes beyond 35 years (only in Iceland and Japan it more than 40 years). Usually much less.

    To sort out this problem we need to invest in better working conditions, better work environment, better safety and health. This can be done nationally and in any enterprise or organisation by systematic and continuous improvement. This would be also the solution for the national economic sustainability deficits.

  2. Why do you think up-to-date OSH information is so important for those in the workplace - directors, managers, supervisors and workers?

    JT: Businesses and individuals should simply behave rationally. Why should anyone carry out work in a poor, inefficient and dangerous way? The question is more that the consequences are not always easily visible and bad behaviour may continue for a reasonably long time without complications. This may go on until an accident occurs, or a work-related illness force workers to stop for a shorter or longer period. Statistical information is, in particular, very difficult to understand: if 1000 workers continue carrying out work in a dangerous way, maybe only 25 are affected in a year. But in this way during a 35 years of working career 875 will have a problem.

    No individual knows all possible complications of poor processes and working methods. Information - whether in the form of a legal requirement, good practice or acquired experience - is the prerequisite for rational behaviour. This must be structural, organised, systematic and continuous. Usually employers have this as their duty while employers rely on the directors, managers, supervisors and workers. Where to find the best solutions and practices is the question. And in correct language, correct source, correct time, and acceptable to the person who needs it.

    Information is like a chain where the weakest link may determine the usefulness. Those who master the information and communication channels best master the world. World of work and the rest.

    Europe will not be unified by guns but with computers (Jean Monnet, Founder of the European institutions, 1948)

  3. You are an engineer by training and have worked as an inspector - how much has this influenced your approach in your role as the Director of the Agency and in your previous job as ILO SafeWork Director?

    If there is anything that one could call "competitive advantage" in any of the jobs that I have had it has been information and the how to use it. Inspectors need to convey what is the legal requirement, but also how to get there. If an inspector cannot tell what measures need to be taken he can fulfil only a part of his/her job. But it is not just one inspector. It is also a culture - or an agreed set of practices - that needs to be properly cultivated. This requires legal measures, educational measures, awareness raising, enforcement and advice, communication and promotion - a toolbox. And some different toolboxes for different stakeholders. You do not use a hammer to kill a fly. Studying engineering is to rely on those solutions and methods that have worked in the past - so it is often simply copying. Inspecting work places is an excellent observation tower to see how things work - and to tell and adapt success stories to slightly different circumstances. Not really rocket science but you still must be credible in advising others. So visibility linked to credibility is vital. If each work place would be at the level of the best of its kind and of their reference group - we could eliminate 80-90% of accidents and work-related diseases. I have tried to tell these ideas to different listeners. My own secret has been good background education, relying on best information, going a bit further than others and persistence - and good luck.

    I'm a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it. (Thomas Jefferson, President of United States).

  4. What were the most important decisions during your term of office from your point of view?

    JT: My target in general was to have safety and health higher on the policy agenda, and I tried to lift the importance, visibility and credibility of the Agency. It is difficult to identify any single decision that most contributed to that but rather than cutting and pasting of information created by others I strongly supported some of the agency's own measures and projects. The Enterprise Survey has been one such output and this could be kept on the agenda also in future. The campaigns have grown in importance because of longer time span, 2 years, and better involvement of stakeholders and partners. The campaigns are now really impressive, the biggest in safety and health globally, and without really having increased the resources spent.

    Also, in the EU structure we coordinated in 2010 all EU Agencies and lifted our own agency profile when talking constantly to top decision makers in the EU: the Commission, including some Commissioners, the Council and the European Parliament. We do not have 500 co-workers such as the Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), or 600 as the Chemical Safety Agency (ECHA), but we rely on networking.

  5. Do you like any project in particular?

    JT: Throughout my working life I have liked indicators and measurements - what is measured gets done! Today we have a new number of 168,000 workers who die every year in EU 27 as a result of work, within the overall number there are slightly less fatalities caused by accidents, slightly more due to work-related diseases.

  6. Where didn't you succeed and why?

    JT: I would have liked to have seen at least a 10% increase in staff to better match the manpower of other agencies - how many airline accidents and deaths do you have in a year? Maybe maximum one crash a year in Europe which means some few hundreds killed annually. At work we have 20 million sick and 7 million injured in addition to the 168,000 deaths and millions of disabilities. Where is the balance?

    But it is not easy to convince 27 governments (and in the Member States the employers and workers) and the general population who are more afraid of flying, nuclear power plant safety, and who pay more attention to 100 ml of liquids or nail cutters taken onboard a plane due to terrorism than to workplace problems.

  7. If you were to begin today, what would you do differently?

    JT: I have heard some comments along the way about too high a profile, too much talk on high level collaboration and international links. However, this only began during the last two years of my term. But I wish I had started much earlier and pushed for a higher profile from the beginning. Otherwise we are just talking to the technical level, to those who are already converted, always the same groups meeting each other in different circumstances and setups. All that will not create a paradigm change: to seriously tackle the whole working life, to highlight sustainability at work life, to get everyone to retirement in their full health after a motivating and productive working life. For the good of workers and for the good of economies.

  8. Is there something that needs to be addressed in the near future?

    JT: Talk to the decision makers, and talk to the public through media, web including the social media. That will have an impact also on the politicians who are concerned about being re-elected.

  9. What was your most beautiful moment in your term of office?

    JT: When I realised that I was not alone in my endeavours but supported by a team of highly professional and competent colleagues ranging from my closest associates to everyone in the agency. These 5 years have been a dream period from that point of view.

  10. What will you undertake in future?

    JT: I have been so deeply submerged in promoting "sustainable working life" and I cannot stop. I will continue to work on safety, health and well-being at work in different setups. That could be within my adjunct professor post in the Centre for Safety Management and Engineering of the Tampere University of Technology (Finland), internationally with the International Panel for Working Life, advising Singapore as I have done already in the past, and having perhaps some consultancy jobs. I will miss the close dream team work in Europe but lots of options exist to continue my so far extremely interesting working career of 42 years.

    And I will have - I hope - a bit more time to follow the ramblings of my 5 grandchildren.

OSHWORLD wishes Dr Jukka Takala every success and happiness in the next stage of his OSH career.