OSH in general

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Isabel L. Nunes, DEMI, Faculdade de Ciências e Tecnologia, Universidade Nova de Lisboa, Portugal

Introduction

OSH stands for occupational safety and health. According to ILO OSH can be defined as the discipline dealing with the prevention of work-related injuries and diseases as well as the protection and promotion of the health of workers. It aims at the improvement of working conditions and environment. [1]The OSH Framework directive (89/391/EEC)[2] on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work obliges employers to take appropriate preventive measures to make work safer and healthier. In line with the ILO definition the EU framework takes a broad approach on OSH and takes into account technical safety but also the general prevention of ill-health including the organisation of work, working conditions, social relationships and the influence of factors related to the working environment.

What is occupational safety and health?

OSH legislation

European Union’s OSH regulations are derived from the European Framework Directive 89/391/EEC (Council Directive of 12 June 1989)[2]. The purpose of this Directive is the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work. It contains general principles concerning the prevention of occupational risks, i.e. prevention of unsafe working conditions. It should be noted that the Directive 89/391/EE sets minimum standards, and that Member States can introduce more rigorous provisions to protect their workers. The Framework Directive is applicable to all sectors of activity, both public and private.

Companies have the ethical and legal responsibility to ensure that their workers, the workers from subcontractors that are doing work in their facility or any other person, for instance a person visiting their facilities, remain safe at all times.

OSH is multidisciplinary

Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) is an interdisciplinary activity concerned with the prevention of occupational risks inherent to each work activity. According to the International Labour Organisation, OSH encompasses the social, mental and physical well-being of workers, that is the “whole person” [3]. Therefore OSH requires a broad approach making it necessary to have interactions with other scientific areas, like occupational medicine, public health, industrial engineering, ergonomics, chemistry and psychology. Traditionally OSH focused on the direct link between workplace hazards and adverse outcomes such as injuries or disease. Changes in the nature of work and the recognition that external factors (e.g. chronic diseases, socio-economic environment, pandemics) can have an impact on the safety, health and, more broadly, the wellbeing of workers, mean that there is a need to take a more holistic approach to OSH. In response to this need Schulte et al. developed an expanded focus on OSH by broadening it 'horizontally' as well as 'vertically' (figure 1)[4]. The horizontal enlargement of OSH is based on the recognition that the health of the workers is not only affected by workplace risks but also by personal and community-level risk factors. A vertically broader focus looks along the entire working-life continuum, from pre-work to post-work. Such an expanded focus on OSH includes not only the traditional workplace risk assessment but also considers interactions of work and non-work factors, as well as the changes that arise over the working life[4].

Figure 1 – Expanded focus on OSH

Source [4]

Basic OSH concepts

Some key concepts in OSH are:

  • Occupational health and safety policy: policy to prevent work-related injury and ill health to worker(s) and to provide a safe and healthy workplace(s).[5]
  • Hazard: source or situation with a potential to cause injury and ill health i.e. an adverse effect on the physical, mental or cognitive condition of a person.[5]
  • Risk: effect of uncertainty Occupational health and safety risk: combination of the likelihood of occurrence of a work-related hazardous event or exposure(s) and the severity of injury and ill health that can be caused by the event or exposures. [5]
  • Risk assessment – is the process of evaluating risks to workers’ safety and health from workplace hazards. It is a systematic examination of all aspects of work that considers:
    • what could cause injury or harm
    • whether the hazards could be eliminated and, if not,
    • what preventive or protective measures are, or should be, in place to control the risks [6].
  • Safety – it is very difficult to define. Safety is the state of being "safe" i.e. free from harm or risk, but in practice this state is never obtained. Therefore safety must be seen as a value judgment regarding the level of risk of being injured which is considered to be acceptable [7].
  • Health – in relation to work, indicates not merely the absence of disease or infirmity; it also includes the physical and mental elements affecting health which are directly related to safety and hygiene at work [8].
  • Incident: occurrence(s) arising out of or in the course of work that could or does result in injury and ill health, i.e. injury and ill health an adverse effect on the physical, mental or cognitive condition of a person. [5] It should be noted that this definition is very broad and goes beyond terms such as occupational disease and/or occupational accidents since these terms are defined within the context of workers' compensation schemes.
  • Prevention – all the steps or measures taken or planned at all stages of work in the undertaking to prevent or reduce occupational risks[2].

Managing OSH

Prevention as key concept in OSH Management

Prevention is a key concept in OSH. In fact, prevention of workplace injuries and ill health must be the main objective of any OSH management system, rather than attempting to solve problems after they have occurred. This principle is assuming an increased importance since organisations are rapidly changing (due to globalisation, downsizing, part-time work, temporary work, subcontracting, ageing workforce…), thus calling for a dynamic OSH approach. Such a dynamic approach requires a systematic approach of OSH by establishing OSH programmes based on clear goals and by integrating OSH management into other business systems and processes.  

The general principles for the prevention of unsafe working conditions set by Framework Directive have been continuously restated in the EU and further developed in other documents. For instance, the “Luxembourg Declaration on Workplace Health Promotion in the European Union” sets out several principles, which aim at preventing ill-health at work (including work-related diseases, accidents, injuries, occupational diseases and stress) and enhancing health-promoting potentials and well-being in the workforce [9]. These principles are:

  • Company codes of conduct and guidelines that view employees not only as cost factors, but as important success factors;
  • Company culture and management policies that include the participation of the employees and encourages them to assume responsibility;
  • Work organisation that enables employees to balance the demands made by the job with their own personal skills and to control their own work and social support;
  • Personnel policies that incorporate health targets into all other areas of the company;
  • Integrated occupational safety and health services;
  • Inclusion of employees in health issues at all levels (participation);
  • Systematic implementation of all measures and programmes (project management);
  • Linking risk reduction strategies with the development of safety factors and health potentials (comprehensive approach).

Considering the above-mentioned principles and the need to focus on the prevention of workplace injuries and ill health, companies should implement and integrate an OSH Management system in their management system. Such system is intended to develop and implement company’s OSH policies and manage its OSH risks [5].

Control and prevention measures

As mentioned before, risk assessment regarding safety and health at work is performed to decide if actions are required and what kind of OSH measures should be implemented in the workplaces. Such OSH control measures should be based on updated technical and/or organisational knowledge, and good practices. The implementation of control measures should be done using the following hierarchy[7] : (1) Preventive measures, (2) Protection measures, and (3) Mitigation measures. A brief description of these types of control measures is presented hereafter.

Preventive measures aim to reduce the likelihood of occurrence of a work accident or an occupational disease. Preventive measures can be of two types:

  • engineering or technical measures - designed to act directly on the risk source, in order to remove, reduce or replace it;
  • organizational or administrative measures – meant to force changing of behaviours and attitudes and promote a safety culture.

Protection measures should consider primarily collective measures and, if they are not deemed feasible or effective, consider as alternative individual measures. Therefore, protection measures include:

  • collective measures – designed to enclose or isolate the risk, for instance through the use of physical barriers, organizational or administrative measures to diminish the exposure duration (job rotation, timing of the job, safety signs) and then;
  • individual measures - any adequate Personnel Protective Equipment designed to protect the worker from the residual risk.

Mitigation measures aim to reduce the severity of any damage to facilities and harm to employees and public. Several examples include:

  • emergency plan;
  • evacuation planning;
  • warning systems (alarms, flashing lights);
  • test of emergency procedures, exercises and drills, fire-extinguishing system;
  • return-to-work plan.

Risk assessment as the key action

Risk assessment constitutes the basis for implementation of appropriate control measures. According to the Framework Directive[2], risk assessment is the starting point and crucial step of the OSH risk management process. There are several methods to perform risk assessment, ranging from simple to complex methods. Risk assessment involves evaluating, ranking, and classifying risks. identifying work hazards, evaluating the risks, checking whether the measures in place are adequate and prioritising actions if further measures are needed. It is essential that those who work at the workplace participate in the risk assessment. This is to ensure that the identification of the hazards also relies on the knowledge of the workers who can in particular draw attention to hazards that are sometimes difficult to identify, e.g. hazards arising out of the organisation of the work or work patterns. The risk assessment needs to be reviewed whenever changes in the workplaces can impact the risks, e.g. the introduction of a new work process, new equipment, changes in the work premises, in the work organisation, etc.[10]

Data from ESENER (European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks) show that almost 80% of the companies in the EU (76,6%, ESENER 2019) carry out a workplace risk assessments on a regular basis. Not all OSH aspects receive equal attention in the risk assessment. The focus is on risks related to dangerous substances and machinery. Aspects related to work organisation are less covered (Figure 2)[11]

Figure 2 – Aspects covered in the risk assessment (ESENER 2019 - % of the establishments in the EU27 that report carrying out risk assessments regularly)

Source [11]

Awareness and worker participation in OSH

In addition to being an EU legal requirement, providing information and training courses to workers is essential in any OSH programme, since they contribute to raise awareness about OSH, allowing the early recognition of:

  • hazardous working situations;
  • symptoms and signs of any work-related illness;
  • risks they can be exposed to.

Communication must be an OSH management priority. Management must be engaged on communicating with workers on shop floor.

Awareness and worker participation in OSH contribute to a better safety and health environment. In fact, besides the role of a strong management (employers) commitment, a high level of workers’ involvement and participation is also crucial for successfully implementing an OSH programme.

Employers need to consult workers and/ or their representatives and allow them to take part in discussions on all questions regarding OSH at work. The actions resulting from such participation may focus, for instance, on adapting the work to the individual, especially on what regards the design of work places, the choice of work equipment or of working and production methods. Workers contribution can be very helpful on finding solutions, namely for modifying inadequate working conditions (e.g., monotonous work, working at a predetermined work-rate) and reducing their effect on health[2].

In order to increase an early awareness of OSH it has been suggested that OSH issues should be integrated into education.

Benefits of OSH

OSH has several economic advantages for businesses such as cutting costs of absenteeism, improving workers' productivity, meeting the requirements of public and private sector contractors and enhancing corporate image. Businesses with higher OSH standards are more successful and more sustainable. Estimates show that for every euro invested in OSH, the return for the employer is around twice as much[12].

Work-related injuries and diseases result in high economic costs to individuals, employers and society. Negative effects may include early retirement, the loss of skilled staff, absenteeism, production and quality losses, lower job satisfaction as well as high medical costs and insurance premiums. EU-OSHA estimates that 3.9 % of global gross domestic product (GDP) and 3.3 % of European GDP is spent on dealing with work-related injuries and diseases, equivalent to a cost of approximately 2,680 billion and 476 billion, respectively (figure 3)[13]

The EU strategic framework on health and safety at work 2021-2027 emphasises the value of OSH. Healthy and safe working conditions are a prerequisite for a healthy and productive workforce and are therefore key for the sustainability and competitiveness of the EU economy. Especially at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become clear that OSH is crucial for protecting workers’ health, for the functioning of our society, and for the continuity of critical economic and social activities[12].

Figure 3 - Cost to society of work-related injury and illness

Source [14]

New risks and future OSH

Societal evolution, technological development and changes in the structure of the labour market due to globalisation and growth of the service sector are influencing changes in working methods and work environment worldwide. These changes are causing the appearance of new OSH risks. The European Risk Observatory [17] set up by EU-OSHA gathers and examines data on trends and underlying factors having an impact on workplaces and workers’ safety and health in order to improve the timeliness and effectiveness of preventive measures.

New and emerging OSH risks may have different origins, namely: new technologies, new production processes, new working conditions, and emerging forms of employment. New products and new processes arise everyday, namely has a consequence of development of e.g. nanotechnology. Nanomaterials are becoming increasingly more common in our daily life, for instance in health care, biotechnology, clean energy production, information and communications, chemical, electronic and military industries, agriculture and construction. Their use can offer various benefits, however the current speed of nanotechnology development means that, despite on-going research, there are still knowledge gaps concerning the evaluation of OSH risks. New biological risks arise for instance in the biotechnology industry, where those engaged in the development of new products and genetically modified organisms can be at particular risk. In addition, workers from the health care, emergency and rescue workers, agriculture or waste management can be exposed to newly emergent infectious diseases, drug-resistant types of infectious diseases, antimicrobial resistant organisms, animal wastes and endotoxins.

New working conditions (for instance, the implementation of lean production models) can lead to higher workloads if implemented without ergonomic adjustments [15]. Work intensification resulting from downsizing, poor conditions associated with migration for work and jobs in the informal economy can also cause new OSH risks.

The structure of the workforce is also changing, namely the ageing workforce and the increasing participation of women in the work market. New forms of employment and jobs, namely temporary contracts, self-employment, platform work, subcontracting and out-sourcing are very common nowadays. Moreover, digitalisation and ICT offer flexibility in terms of work location and time, allowing constant connectivity, and have thus led to an increase in teleworking and mobile workers. Societal measures to combat the COVID-19 pandemic have also led to a significant increase in teleworking. One consequence of new ways of working has been the increase in the number of lone workers. These present particular problems, partly in respect of the difficulties in managing the conventional risks to which they might be exposed (such as manual handling, violence, etc.) but also because of the new psychosocial risks they face as a result of the increased isolation and lack of peer-support[16].

These emerging forms of employment have an impact on working conditions, making it harder to achieve a healthy work-life balance. Taken together with other factors, such changes have led to increased work-related stress and other forms of mental ill-health, trends that can be all more acute during global economic crises [17]. Some ergonomics or human factors risks were also identified as emerging [18], for instance poor design of human-machine interaction interfaces due to excessively complex or requiring high forces for operation.

The results from ESENER reflect these societal changes. Figure 4 shows the most frequently identified risk factors in 2019 in comparison with 2014. It shows that risk factors associated with repetitive work, having to deal with difficult customers and lifting heavy loads are are gaining importance, while other, more 'traditional', OSH risks such as risks related to machinery, chemicals or noise are becoming less important [19].

Figure 4 - Risk factors present in the establishment (% establishments, EU28), 2019 and 2014.

Source[19]

As a conclusion it is worth highlighting the importance of raising the awareness among employers’, workers’ and workers’ organizations on the rapid and constant change of OSH risks, which can occur as a consequence of changes, for instance in technology and working conditions. Therefore it is essential to manage and control such changes. OSH management systems have a vital role on the prevention of occupational accidents and ill-health in the continuously evolving work system.

References

  1. ILO, International Labour Office, Technical and ethical guidelines for workers' health surveillance, 1998. Available at: [1]
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Directive 89/391/EEC of 12 June 1989 on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work - "Framework Directive". Available at: [2]
  3. ILO – International Labour Organisation, Introduction to Occupational Health and Safety. Available at: [3]
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Schulte, P.A., Delclos, G., Felknor, S.A., Chosewood, L.C., Toward an Expanded Focus for Occupational Safety and Health: A Commentary. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 2019, 16, 4946. [4]
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 ISO 45001:2018 Occupational health and safety management systems — Requirements with guidance for use
  6. EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Factsheet 81, Risk assessment — the key to healthy workplaces, 2008. Available at: [5]
  7. 7.0 7.1 L. Harms-Ringdahl, Safety Analysis: Principles and Practice In Occupational Safety (2nd ed.), Taylor & Francis, 2001.
  8. ILO - International Labour Organisation, Occupational Safety and Health Convention (C155), 1981. Available at: [6].
  9. European Network for Workplace Health Promotion, Luxembourg Declaration on Workplace Health Promotion in the European Union, 2007. Available at: [7]
  10. EC - European Commission, Guidance on Risk Assessment at Work, Luxembourg, 1996. Available at: [8]
  11. 11.0 11.1 EU-OSHA, ESENER 2019, Data visualisation. Availbale at: [9]
  12. 12.0 12.1 EU Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work 2021-2027. Available at: [10]
  13. EU-OSHA, The value of occupational safety and health and the societal costs of work-related injuries and diseases, 2019. Available at: [11]
  14. EU-OSHA, The economics of occupational safety and health – the value of OSH to society, Data Visualisation tool. Available at: [12]
  15. Figueira, S., V. Cruz Machado, Nunes, I.L. 'Integration of human factors principles in LARG organizations - A conceptual model', Work, Vol. 41(SUPPL.1), 2012. pp. 1712-1719.
  16. Health and safety guidance on the risks of lone working. Available at: [13]
  17. ILO - International Labour Organisation, Emerging risks and new patterns of prevention in a changing world of work, 2010. Available at: [14]
  18. EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Literature review - The human-machine interface as an emerging risk, 2010. Available at: [15].
  19. 19.0 19.1 EU-OSHA, Third European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER 3), 2019. Available at: [16]

Links for further reading

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Factsheet 77 - The business benefits of good occupational safety and health. Available at: [18]

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Factsheet 81, Risk assessment - the key to healthy workplaces. Available at: [19]

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Risk assessment essentials. Available at: [20]

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER) [21]

EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Management Leadership in Occupational Safety and Health – a practical guide. Available at: [22]

EU Commission, DG Employment, Social Affairs & Inclusion? Health and Safety at Work [23]

EU Commission, Health and safety at work is everybody’s business. Available at: [24]

ILO - International Labour Organisation, How can occupational safety and health be managed? Available at: [25]

ISSA - International Social Security Association, Vision Zero, 7 Golden Rules & Guides. Available at: [26]