OSH research

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Klaus Kuhl (Cooperation Centre, Kooperationsstelle Hamburg IFE GmbH)


Introduction

OSH research combines a range of approaches. The public health and safety analysis approach involves epidemiology, toxicology, microbiology, health education etc. There are also physical, chemical, technical, economic and organisational approaches, such as developing engineering controls, non-hazardous chemicals, exhaust systems, or stress-free work processes. Both approaches are necessary for OSH, where research is application-oriented. Interdisciplinary methods, coordination and stakeholder participation are extremely important.

OSH research, definition, relation to research in other disciplines

OSH research is a systematic investigation to acquire new knowledge in the field of occupational safety and health. Developed in reaction to practical problems, namely workplace injuries, this applied research looks into incidences, characteristics, causes and prevention [1]. It provides arguments and scientific evidence upon which efficient and sustainable policies and prevention measures have to be based. It also delivers the evidence base for the development of practical methods and tools to be applied at company level. OSH research has a key role in ensuring safety, health and well-being at workplaces.

OSH research is based on various disciplines, including occupational hygiene, rehabilitation, biomechanics, ergonomics, psychology and sociology. These disciplines can focus on various risk factors and aspects of health and safety in the workplace.

Methods and instruments in use

The methods and instruments may be complex, involving many disciplines, depending on the specific problems. There is an increased need to identify and involve all necessary expertise and to coordinate the efforts. This is illustrated by the following table.

Table 1: Disciplines and methods for selected OSH issues

Problems Disciplines Objectives / methods Typical institutes
Slips, trips Accident research Identify hazardous conditions (design statistics and reporting systems, data gathering and analyses) Institutes of accident insurance associations
Labour inspection
Medicine Develop cures, rehabilitation Medical universities
Medical engineering Develop prosthesis Specialised institutes
Accident research Develop preventive measures by a systematic examination of the structure and functions of a system aimed at identifying accident contributors, modelling potential accidents, and finding risk-reducing measures [1] (lab and technical centre). Institutes of accident insurance associations

Other institutes (e.g. ergonomics)
Engineering departments of universities

Measuring technology Develop measuring methods (lab and technical centre) Institutes of accident insurance associations
Chemical engineering Identify safe alternatives, e.g. non-slippery floor-lining, dry cleaning (lab and technical centre) Technical universities
Process engineering / Ergonomics Identify technical and organisational alternatives, e.g. processes that avoid complicated moves (technical centre) Technical colleges
Equipment development / Ergonomics Develop PPE – personal protective equipment - e.g. non-slippery safety boots R&D – research and development - departments of private companies
Psychology Develop communication methods,
Develop methods to change unsafe behaviour
Universities
Consultants
Education, communication Develop training and instruction methods Colleges
IT Develop tools for risk assessment and identification of preventive and control measures Institutes,
Institutes of accident insurance associations
Economy Develop methods to calculate the costs of accidents and preventive measures,

Design incentive systems

University institutes
Institutes of accident insurance associations
Policy Design control systems, e.g. rules/standards for staircases, floor lining etc. Multidisciplinary work groups
Jurisprudence Design legal systems Universities
Sociology Evaluate methods (statistics, surveys, questionnaires)

Develop methods of participation

Universities
Consultants
Work related chronic or acute diseases caused by hazardous substances Epidemiology Identify harmful substances (surveillance, data gathering and analyses) Medical universities
Medicine Develop cures, rehabilitation Medical universities
Toxicology Identify harmful substances (lab)

Identify mechanisms, pathways (lab)
Identify OELs – occupational exposure levels - (lab)

Universities
Develop measuring methods (lab and technical centre) Institutes of accident insurance associations
Hygiene Develop preventive measures (lab and technical centre) Medical universities, Institutes of accident insurance associations
Chemical engineering Identify safe alternatives (lab and technical centre) Technical universities
Process engineering / Ergonomics Identify technical and organisational alternatives, e.g. processes that do not need chemicals (technical centre) Technical colleges
Equipment development / Ergonomics Develop PPE, e.g. gloves, masks and filters R&D departments of private companies
Psychology Develop communication methods,
Develop methods to change unsafe behaviour
Universities
Consultants
Education, communication Develop training and instruction methods Colleges
IT Develop tools for risk assessment and identification of preventive and control measures Technical colleges Institutes of accident insurance associations
Economy Develop methods to calculate the costs of diseases and preventive measures,

Design incentive systems

University institutes
Institutes of accident insurance associations
Policy Design control systems, e.g. OEL systems Multidisciplinary workgroups
Jurisprudence Design legal systems Universities
Consultants
Sociology Evaluate methods (statistics, surveys, questionnaires)

Develop methods of participation

Universities
Consultants

Source: Overview by the author

A full research cycle could start with epidemiological surveillance, i.e. a systematic collection, analysis and interpretation of health data. As major problems become apparent, researchers may design studies to answer detailed questions.

There are many barriers between the disciplines. One such example is safety and health research: it is easier to obtain information on accidents in companies than on work-related diseases, making evaluations in this field very difficult [2]. These divisions as well as the great number of involved disciplines illustrate that interdisciplinary methods, exchange and coordination are very important. The development of safe machines would greatly benefit from the involvement of OSH researchers already at the design stage, rather than trying to improve a machine that has already caused accidents [1]. The same applies (though less obvious) to work processes/organisation which may cause accidents, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and stress related diseases. Stakeholders should also be included, e.g. machine operators or workers that could be affected by inefficient design and implementation procedures. Not only do such stakeholders know the specific requirements, they are also more likely to ‘buy in’ to measures which they have helped develop.

Well designed engineering control measures are often put in place, only to realise that workers do not respond as desired or even try to outwit or manipulate the appliances [3]. Developing preventive measures or controlled experimental research is generally not sufficient; behaviour must also be addressed. Especially on safety management and OSH policy, several research projects use a system perspective, as opposed to the analytical perspective, because of the many factors that may influence the results. This analysis focuses primarily on the complete system, and tries to understand its functioning [4].

There is, therefore, a need for further development of expertise, exchange, networking and coordination in OSH research. Coordination has two major aspects: cross-disciplinary/institutional and cross-national. The first is often carried out by large governmental institutes (FIOH in Finland or BAuA in Germany). However, this is also an obligation of institutes and organisations involved in OSH research. EU-OSHA notes: 'research organisations should coordinate their respective programmes, target them to address practical problems arising at the workplace, and make preparations for the research findings to be transferred to firms, and especially to SMEs' [5].

At cross-national the partnership for European Research in Occupational Safety and Health - PEROSH and the European agency EU-OSHA 'encourage national OSH research institutes to set joint priorities, exchange results and include occupational health and safety requirements in research programmes' [6] . To combine both approaches the national agencies often serve as Focal Points for the European agency.

Evaluation, results

Evaluation has many aspects and levels. In general, the evaluation of OSH research projects must consider the human factor, which usually requires an evaluation in a company setting. The ultimate test is whether an approach really improves the situation in a company. There is wide scope for various projects, so identifying the most promising approach is beneficial. Apart from the usual problems associated with methodological evaluation (e.g. sample size, selection bias), OSH project evaluation is complicated by other factors of influence:

  • Behaviour of employees, which depends on culture (e.g. macho behaviour), age, peer pressure, company culture, example of management and supervisors
  • Condition of buildings and machines; design and quality, maintenance
  • Situation and history of the company; e.g. relation of newcomers and experienced staff, danger of closing down, number of contract workers, etc.
  • Duration of project; OSH projects are often short term activities, due to company time schedules, although, long term projects are preferable for improved results.

This can lead to similar projects in similar companies producing results that are quite different, or even questionable or irreproducible.

The EU-OSHA demands that projects should produce evidence-based results. This is their hierarchy of criteria [7]:

  1. Systematic reviews and meta analyses
  2. Randomised controlled trials
  3. Cohort studies
  4. Case control studies
  5. Cross sectional surveys
  6. Case reports
  7. Expert opinion

The randomised control trial is considered the preferred method for measuring the effectiveness of OSH interventions, especially in the area of occupational health. However, occupational health problems often have multiple aetiologies, requiring complex interventions that are targeted not only at the individual but also at the working environment. Therefore the randomised control trial may be a challenging design to adopt in current working life. Other experimental and observational epidemiological designs exist offering more flexibility and feasibility with regard to measuring the effects of interventions[8].

The hierarchy of criteria does not consider contextual factors, i.e. factors mentioned above that could nevertheless influence the results of the research projects. Therefore, the ‘realistic evaluation method’ has been developed to take these factors into account [9].

While the reduction in numbers and/or severity of accidents and work related diseases remains the litmus test, the evaluation of project design and implementation is important for analysing the factors of success and failure. Careful documentation is therefore necessary to enable such evaluations [10].

To produce sound results would also require finding a sufficient number of comparable companies. However, finding a viable number of companies (especially SMEs) that will commit themselves to such long term studies is very difficult. Therefore many research projects rather conduct short term studies and compare the situation in the same company before the onset of the project and after a given period of often one or two years. This may well yield useful results provided the situation in the company and the general economic and cultural situation does not change much.

A typical example for the evaluation of larger OSH projects is provided by the Dutch Working Conditions Act covenant on working conditions in the cleaning and window cleaning sectors. The project was evaluated by an external institute producing a report on its effects [11]. Data was obtained from a questionnaire filled in by 10,000 employees from the sector, and telephone interviews conducted with 2,600 employers. The response rate among the employees was 23% and among the employers 13%. The results showed improvements in some areas, with no changes in others.

Translating research findings into practice

A major challenge for OSH research remains the translation of its results into practice. Research findings have to find its way into useful, effective preventive information providing a sound basis for policymakers or for the development of products, technologies, and innovative workplace practices. Knowledge transfer should make relevant research information available and accessible to stakeholders for use in practice[12]. Knowledge transfer relies on using multiple dissemination and exchange activities such as safety and health communication and promotion, social marketing, and through partnerships with stakeholders such as employers and their associations, trade unions, government agencies, and professional associations. Facilitating dialogue between researchers, practitioners and policy makers can also help to bridge the research-practice gap.

Expert forecasts, new and emerging risks

OSH research is not only trying to solve problems but to prevent, so early risk identification is important. The aim of aim of EU-OSHA’s European Risk Observatory (ERO) is to identify new and emerging risks in occupational safety and health. To achieve this aim, the ERO provides an overview of safety and health at work in Europe, describes the trends and underlying factors, and anticipates changes in work and their likely impact on occupational safety and health.

The ERO foresight projects focus on the possible effects of new technologies, new ways of working and societal change on workers’ safety and health. The projects use a variety of methods such as literature reviews, consultation with experts and scenario-building. To further gather and transfer knowledge EU-OSHA organises workshops to disseminate the results and stimulate debate. The results serve as a basis for policymakers. Topics already covered by the foresight projects include green jobs[13] and ICT/digitalisation[14]. In addition to the foresight projects EU-OSHA also publishes expert review papers to support debate on the future of work and on emerging issues in workplace safety and health among OSH experts and policymakers throughout the EU. Topics already covered by the review series include crowdsourcing, robotics and performance-enhancing drugs, 3-D printing, monitoring technologies and the e-retail sector[15].

In order to improve the validity of the emerging risks findings, EU-OSHA established a Europe-wide survey on health and safety at the workplace: the European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER)[16]. ESENER is based on interviews with companies (establishments that have five or more employees) about the way health and safety risks are managed at their workplace, with a particular focus on psychosocial risks. The first ESENER was held in 2009 and runs every five years. In the third edition (2019) a total of 45,420 establishments were interviewed (i.e. the person who know best about health and safety in the establishment) across all activity sectors in 33 countries (EU Member States, Iceland, North Macedonia, Norway, Serbia, Switzerland and the United Kingdom).

The results from these interviews are complemented by secondary analyses involving a series of in-depth studies that focus on specific topics. Quantitative and qualitative research methodologies are applied in these studies to help better understand the main findings from the survey[16].

Priorities for OSH research in the EU

In 2013 EU-OSHA published a report[17] identifying priorities for OSH research 2013-2020 in accordance with both the Europe 2020 strategy and the Horizon 2020 programme and their key objectives of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. The report identified five key areas:

  1. The economic dimension of occupational safety and health
  2. Demographic change (sustainable work for healthier and longer working lives)
  3. Globalisation and the changing world of work
  4. OSH research for safe new technologies
  5. New or increasing occupational exposure to chemical and biological agents

These priorities have guided many research and information projects carried out by the Agency since then, such as Healthy Workplaces for All Ages campaign (2016 – 2017) and the Dangerous substances campaign (2018 – 2020) [12].

The Futures project (2016) has built on these five key areas to set the research agenda and identifying research needs for the PEROSH network of European OSH research institutes. One of the priorities identified within the Futures project was 'Emerging technological devices'[18]. As mentioned above 'digitalisation and OSH' has been the subject of an EU-OSHA’s European Risk Observatory (ERO) foresight project. Digital technology such as artificial intelligence (AI), advanced robotics, widespread connectivity, the Internet of things and large data, wearables, mobile devices and online platforms is now widely spread across many economic sectors. These developments are changing the nature and location of work, who works and when, and how work is organised and managed. EU-OSHA started research work on digitalisation and OSH in 2016 and from 2020 the Agency will build on this foresight work to provide further information for policy, prevention and practice on the challenges and opportunities for OSH as a result of digitalisation. The EU-wide Healthy Workplaces Campaign commencing in 2023 is also dedicated to digitalisation and OSH[19].

Conclusions and outlook

The wide variety of disciplines and methods mean that OSH research is complex. More cooperation is required at all levels and disciplines. The barriers between safety research and health research must be lowered, and both must consider the human factor and the behaviour issue. A major challenge for OSH research remains the translation of its results into practice.

References

  1. 1.0 1.1 Linn, H., Amendola, A. ‘Occupational safety research: an overview’, ILO (Ed.), Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety, 2003. Available at: [1]
  2. Van den Broek, K., De Greef, M., Van Der Heyden, S., Kuhl, K., Schmitz-Felten, E., Socio-economic costs of accidents at work and work-related ill health – Full study report, European Commission, Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, Luxembourg 2011.
  3. Paulus, J. ‘No risk no fun‘, bild der wissenschaft, 7/2007, p. 72.
  4. Luczak, H., Cernavin, O., Scheuch, K., Sonntag, K-H. ‘Review Article - Trends of Research and Practice in “Occupational Risk Prevention” as Seen in Germany‘, Industrial Health, 2002, 40, 74–100. .
  5. González, E., Fostering OSH research co-ordination: Contribution to a 2013-2020 EU Strategy on OSH, PEROSH seminar lecture, 20 June 2010.
  6. Palmer, K., OSH research in the EU: fostering coordination & reducing fragmentation, lecture at NEW OSH ERA final conference, Berlin 26 February 2010.
  7. EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Innovative solutions to safety and health risks in the construction, healthcare and HORECA sectors, Office for Official Publications of the European Communities, Luxembourg, 2012. Available at: [2](adapted from the evidence-based medicine philosophy; see Greenhalgh, T., 'How to read a paper: getting your bearings (deciding what the paper is about)', BMJ, 1997, 315, pp.243-246.).
  8. Schelvis, R., Oude Hengel, K., Burdorf, A,. Blatter, B., Strijk, J., van der Beek, A., Evaluation of occupational health interventions using a randomized controlled trial: challenges and alternative research designs, Scand J Work Environ Health, 2015, vol. 41, n° 5, pp. 491-503. Available at: [3]
  9. Pawson, R., Tilley, N., Realistic Evaluation, Sage Publications, London, 1997.
  10. Nielsen, K., Randall, R., Christensen, K.B., ‘Developing New Ways of Evaluating Organizational-Level Interventions‘, Houdmont, J., Leka, S. (Eds.), Contemporary Occupational Health Psychology: Global perspectives on research and practice, Chichester, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.
  11. Van Ojen, Q.H.J.M., Eindevaluatie arboconvenant schoonmaak- en glazenwassersbranche (Final evaluation of the arbo covenant for the cleaning and window industry), Orbis Arbeid en Onderzoek, Bussum, August 2007.
  12. Van Eerd, D., Knowledge transfer and exchange in health and safety: a rapid review, Policy and Practice in Health and Safety, 2019, vol. 17:1, pp. 54-77. Available at: [4]
  13. EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at work, Workers’ safety and health in green jobs. Available at: [5]
  14. EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at work, Developments in ICT and digitalisation of work Available at: [6]
  15. EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at work, Emerging risks. Available at: [7]
  16. 16.0 16.1 EU-OSHA - European Agency for Safety and Health at work, European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER). Available at: [8]
  17. EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Priorities for occupational safety and health research in Europe: 2013-2020, 2013. Available at: [9]
  18. Gagliardi D, Rondinone BM, Mirabile M, et al, The perspective of European researchers of national occupational safety and health institutes for contributing to a European research agenda: a modified Delphi study, BMJ Open 2017, vol. 7-6. Available at: [10]
  19. EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Digitalisation and occupational safety and health (OSH), An EU-OSHA research programme. Available at: [11]


Links for further reading

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Emerging risks [13]

PEROSH - Partnership for European Research on Occupational Safety and Health [14]

EU Commission, Supporting policy with scientific evidence [15]