Foresight study on the circular economy and its effects on occupational safety and health

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Introduction

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) has been applying foresight approaches as part of its mission to contribute to the improvement of safe and healthy working conditions in the EU for several years. Within its foresight approach, it looks at changes that may take place in the future and considers what their consequences could be, with the aims of improving policy and regulation and raising awareness to reduce work-related accidents and ill health. Within its new foresight cycle, work is focused on the circular economy (CE) and its effects on occupational safety and health (OSH), primarily within the European context[1].

While definitions of the CE vary across publications, this study understands CE to be 'based on pillars that question operating modes that are well-rooted in today’s economy: sustainable supply, eco-design, industrial and territorial ecology, functional economy, sustainable consumption, extended use duration and recycling’[2]. It further assumes that CE ’is based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems’[3].

Phase 1 of this project, the development of macro-scenarios, was created against the background of an EU policy shift towards more environmentally sustainable practices, with several policy initiatives driving efforts in the CE arena [4]. These initiatives, and indeed the CE, are widely considered to be critical and influential developments that will be beneficial to the action against climate change and will ultimately have an impact on jobs and on occupational and workplace safety. Thus, this study aims to explore different ways in which future jobs may be affected by efforts towards implementing a CE, and what consequences this may have for OSH in the future. This was achieved through the development of macro-scenarios focused on the CE and its effects on OSH.

Overview of methodology

The central foresight methodology this project followed was the scenario methodology, specifically the key-factor-based scenario methodology. These make it possible to capture the main developments and changes in the field in question, in this case for the future of the CE and its potential effects on OSH. This approach was selected principally on account of its ability to integrate existing insights from a variety of sources, e.g. information on trends and drivers and on relevant megatrends. The identification of key factors (and later steps in the scenario development) was drawn from two pillars of insights: (1) secondary research via a literature review and (2) feedback and insights via expert interviews.

Step 1: Literature review

Following a selection criterion based on future-focused foresight literature[1], a longlist of studies on CE, the future of work and future OSH risk factors was compiled. From this longlist, the studies for an in-depth review were selected following a ranking process, which sought to ensure a balanced spread across the types and topics of resources available. In a second step, key sections were selected from the INRS report "Économie circulaire en 2040. Quels impacts en santé et sécurité au travail? Quelle prévention?"[5] and translated into English, with the aim of building on the report’s key messages, for a wider European context. In the final step, publications from earlier foresight cycles by EU-OSHA were reviewed and the insights incorporated into the findings of the literature review.

Step 2: Expert interviews

Following the selection criteria, a diverse range of experts on the CE, OSH and the future of work were identified. Semi-structured interviews were then conducted to validate the findings of the literature review and identify any blind spots.

Step 3: Identification of key factors

Based on the results from the literature review and the first round of expert interviews, a list of key factors[6] was identified as being both highly relevant for the future of CE and having implications for OSH. These key factors (e.g. digitalisation and automation, new forms of work and energy transition) then formed the basis of the scenario construction steps which followed (see Step 4).

Step 4: Scenario creation

A range of possible future developments — known as projections — were developed for each key factor, based on the understanding of selected initial conditions and drivers (from the literature review and the expert interviews), and mapped against a number of dimensions, e.g. rapid versus slow adaptation, improving versus deteriorating conditions. Using the scenario software tool ScenLab, a robustness and consistency analysis was undertaken to identify the most plausible and consistent bundles of projections — or raw scenarios — from all of the possible combinations of projections (future development paths) imaginable. The results of the analysis led to the selection of four highly robust, plausible and consistent raw scenarios.

Step 5: Expert interviews

A second round of expert interviews was then conducted to validate the raw scenarios and to identify any additional insights or blind spots.

Step 6: Reporting and communication

The identified candidate scenarios were developed into four draft scenario narratives and presented to the EU-OSHA OSH Knowledge Advisory Group (OKAG). Feedback received from the OKAG was then integrated into the development of the final scenario narratives with full storylines and special emphasis on the potential effects on OSH.

The four scenarios

For each scenario, a narrative and visualisations were developed that describe the scenario world in 2040, including how the different development pathways came to be, as well as levers and turning points. Special emphasis was placed on the effects on working conditions and job quality, as well as providing a first look at potential implications for OSH. The scenarios were also supplemented with visuals and an illustrative vignette depicting daily life in 2040 to aid communication.

Scenario 1: The Roaring 40s — fully circular and inclusive

In 2040, the products that sell best are those that are cradle to cradle and ‘net positive’ in terms of social and environmental sustainability.

Working conditions across all sectors are significantly better than they were two decades ago, pollution has been reduced to a minimum, businesses find that keeping a small footprint is good for the balance sheet, and public trust in policy-makers and national and European leaders is greater than ever. Implementing serious sustainability and realising the principles of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ across all sectors takes a lot of collaborative fine-tuning, as does keeping workers safe and secure in a multifaceted labour environment with myriad platforms and forms of employment. But one key difference from the situation in 2020 is a palpable sense of optimism: with so many challenges successfully met, the future cannot be anything other than bright.

Key message: ‘The Roaring 40s’ is a best-of-all-worlds scenario: not only do policy-makers and stakeholders — having realised the gravity of the situation — make bold decisions to achieve real, far-reaching sustainability, but worker safety and health is also a key concern and is fully realised. The scenario demonstrates that one does not have to come at the expense of the other, and that this can be done in a competitive economy. However, even in this positive situation, OSH will always come up against new challenges, and constant improvement remains necessary.

Scenario 2: Carbon neutrality — of a hazardous kind

In 2040, Europe has achieved carbon neutrality. But, with environmental outcomes taking top priority, job quality and working conditions have suffered, at least in some areas.

In the early 2020s, a warming climate, extreme weather events and habitat loss took centre stage in the public mind. Eco-consciousness reigned, leading to a surge in environmental regulation and environmentally friendly industry practices. But with the bulk of funding spent on renewable energy infrastructure and CE initiatives, social aspects fell by the wayside. Social infrastructures and services, social rights, inclusion and job quality declined for many.

Key message: ‘Carbon neutrality’ is a ‘mixed bag’ scenario: it demonstrates that, given the right incentives, Europe would be able to kick its addiction to fossil fuels in an incredibly short time span and become a world leader in green technologies; however, this speed would come at a cost for workers. Unless measures are taken to secure a just transition, during which workers receive all the skills necessary to work new jobs safely, accidents and occupational diseases will increase, even in the face of new, safer technologies. In addition, regional challenges will vary much more widely in a localised economy: areas that sourced much of their employment from fossil fuel energy generation would find themselves faced with rapidly growing unemployment and an exodus of workers with outdated skills, while the OSH-relevant knowledge necessary for the safe dismantling of old energy infrastructures may be missing. If OSH must take a back seat to a speedy transition to a carbon neutrality, the human cost could be considerable, and stakeholders are challenged to not let this happen.

Scenario 3: Staying afloat — amid economic and environmental crises

In 2040, work is what people want — any job will do. Keeping your head above the water is all that matters, and the environment, social rights or job quality come a distant second.

Recessions, cuts in public spending, environmental crises and rising unemployment: the headlines in 2040 make for grim reading. In the business community, it is everyone for themselves, and only competitiveness and profits count. New technologies, rationalisation and digitalisation created an ever-growing pool of workers who lack the qualifications necessary to make it in this new, cut-throat economy. Platform work[7] brings rewards to only a few, and, even in the sectors where it is booming, the ‘Russian doll effect’ of sub-contracts within sub-contracts means that workers never see their fair share. The CE remains a distant dream, and the transition that everyone went through was neither green nor just.

Key message: In ‘Staying afloat’, the millennium’s second decade never delivered on its promises. Policy-makers and stakeholders never dared to make the ‘big jump’ and failed to grasp the opportunity offered by public support for a green transition and the shake-up provided by the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, economic success often comes at the expense of both worker safety and health and the environment, putting OSH institutions and other actors in the OSH field (policy-makers, etc.) under enormous pressure to improve the situation that workers find themselves in and increasingly less able to address core issues comprehensively.

Scenario 4: Regional circularities — with European divides

By 2040, work has become a two-tier system: contracted employees are well looked after, those in non-standard employment are not. Neither is the environment, with circularity being mostly regional.

To both policy-makers and the public, a safe, growing economy was the overriding concern of the last two decades. The environment fell by the wayside, but not everywhere. Richer European regions could afford to outsource waste and pollution to other world regions or poorer EU Member States and now boast some sort of localised CEs, but the loops are never fully closed — problems are simply offshored. Social inclusion was also neglected. With good jobs available to only a minority of well-trained, highly skilled individuals, a growing number of workers are driven towards the informal economy and to unregulated, underpaid and increasingly precarious employment.

Key message: ‘Regional circularities’ emphasises the dangers inherent in regional and social disparities. Not only is responsibility for waste and polluting practices shifted from the rich to the poorer regions, but the working population is also divided between those who enjoy safe working conditions and good social protection and others who must make do with very little in both respects. In this environment, realising high OSH standards for everyone will be challenging and require broad political coalitions, forcing OSH institutions to reach out and activate other stakeholders to increase pressure on decision-makers.

Key messages across the four scenarios and the underlying research

The four scenarios show that the potential pathways for CE in Europe and their effects on working conditions could vary widely, with a similarly wide-ranging set of first implications for OSH and corresponding possible future policy areas[1]. Work on the scenarios will continue in phase 2 of this project, which centres on the dissemination and tailoring of the scenarios via stakeholder dialogue and workshops. Thus, it needs to be stressed that these scenarios are not to be interpreted as any type of prediction on what the future might or might not be. They are instead designed to encourage dialogue and reflection with stakeholders around future possibilities, with the aim of informing today’s decision-making towards making policy more future oriented.

From the scenarios and the underlying research, several cross-cutting and overarching key messages can be identified:

  • As yet, there is no widely shared or common definition and understanding of what a CE is. This contributes to a certain ‘fuzziness’ in the existing assumptions and expectations of potential future developments regarding a CE and opens the door to using the term and its concepts for the purpose of “greenwashing”[8].
  • Any reflection on CE perspectives in Europe will need to take global repercussions, as well as value and production chain effects, into account. A clear paradigm shift towards CE principles could be implemented sensibly and ethically, but only if this approach integrates global production chains and elements over the whole life cycle of any product and material.
  • The European waste sector will need to play a pivotal role in the development of any future CE. The integration of new technologies while meeting new challenges will be a complex undertaking; however, the reskilling offensive necessary offers opportunities to considerably improve OSH practices and outcomes for workers if OSH considerations are made an inherent part of this process from the beginning.
  • Digitalisation is a key enabler and accelerator for the CE. A high standard of OSH in a CE will be achieved only if digitalisation processes, such as building a universal information ecosystem (a safe data space that minimises manipulation risks) or creating a monitoring system to prevent illegal imports of products that may be potentially hazardous during recycling, are well managed. Accordingly, OSH measures will need to keep pace with these rapid digital changes.
  • A fundamental paradigm shift towards a CE seems possible only if it is driven by robust regulatory efforts and corresponding policy mechanisms. Circularity can be achieved only if life-cycle responsibility rests with the manufacturer, and measures are taken to internalise the external costs of any material and product life cycle.
  • Any fundamental paradigm shift towards a CE would probably have to imply the far-reaching re-organisation of the value chain and the emergence of new actors. This would probably also lead to second- and third-order effects on infrastructure to accommodate new feedback loops and more collaborative material streams.
  • Large-scale implementation of a CE would — based on the principle of a just transition — not only come with a significant opportunity to advance OSH conditions but could also lead to the emergence of new risks and undesired side effects (e.g. especially around repeated recycling). However, from another perspective, emerging risks also have the potential to be used as growth opportunities but only if there are clear cost incentives and relevant markets.
  • The range of progress in a CE and the integration of OSH measures into it could differ widely between regions, EU Member States and sectors, as could the corresponding risks and opportunities for OSH. A major lever for ensuring OSH is advanced alongside any kind of progress towards a CE will therefore lie in ensuring that there is sufficient appropriate support for all regions, sectors and countries, especially those with comparatively fewer resources.
  • A window of opportunity currently presents itself for advancing a CE with a view to OSH improvements being realised in synergy. This is due to several factors, among them a recently increased focus on the interconnectedness of the social and environmental pillars of sustainability, as well as a growing awareness that an integrated view of efforts in those areas will clearly benefit the third pillar of sustainability, the economic sphere (a ‘just transition’).

Next steps

Throughout the next stage of this project, phase 2, the scenarios will be used as a tool for cooperative sense-making around implications for different stakeholder groups. Thus, it is important to emphasise that the primary role of these scenarios is to encourage dialogue and reflection around future possibilities: they show alternative pathways to the future and demonstrate how broad the range of feasible developments is. Thus, they are not intended as a type of prediction on what the future might or might not be and are not the final result of the project. They are a first step towards the next phase of stakeholder engagement, which will reflect in more depth on the implications of the results for OSH research, initiatives and policy-making today.

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (2021). Foresight Study on the Circular Economy and its effects on Occupational Safety and Health Phase 1: Macro-scenarios. Available at: https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/what-will-circular-economy-ce-mean-occupational-safety-and-health-osh/view
  2. French National Research and Safety Institute for the Prevention of Occupational Accidents and Diseases (2019a). A circular economy in 2040. What impact on occupational safety and health? What prevention? Retrieved 23 November 2020, from: https://en.inrs.fr/news/circular-economy-in-2040.html
  3. Ellen MacArthur Foundation (2017). What is the circular economy? Retrieved 23 November 2017, from: https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/circular-economy/what-is-the-circular-economy
  4. The key related policy initiative in this area is the European Commission’s European Green Deal initiative, which has the overarching aim of making Europe climate neutral by 2050 (see: https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_en). Alongside the European Green Deal initiative sits the Commission’s 2015 Circular Economy Package, comprising an EU action plan for the CE (‘Closing the Loop’) with 54 concrete actions to achieve a CE, many with significant policy and regulatory implications for the EU’s waste and recycling sector (see: https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX%3A52015DC0614)
  5. French National Research and Safety Institute for the Prevention of Occupational Accidents and Diseases (2019b). Économie circulaire en 2040. Quels impacts en santé et sécurité au travail? Quelle prévention? Retrieved 23 November 2020, from: https://www.inrs.fr/media.html?refINRS=PV%2010
  6. Key factors, similar to ‘drivers of change’, are defined as a ‘current or emerging trend that is likely to shape (have an impact on) development of the policy or strategy area’ UK Government Office for Science (2017). The Futures Toolkit. Retrieved 23 November 2020, from: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/674209/futures-toolkit-edition-1.pdf
  7. This is at odds with the current EU initiative on platform work (scheduled for publishing at the end of 2021 (European Commission, 2021)), which aims to improve the working conditions of platform workers. In this (and the following) scenario, the influence of this initiative and of the proposed Digital Service Act on workers and their collective bargaining potential was considered to have remained limited.
  8. ‘Greenwashing’ refers to the process whereby companies may provide false or misleading claims about the environmental credentials of their products

Contributors

Palmer