Occupational risk assessment in micro-enterprises: the assets of digital tools

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Marc Malenfer, INRS (National Research and Safety Institute), with the OiRA team of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA)

What if micro-enterprises were to take their first step in risk prevention via the internet? This is what several European Union Member States are hoping as they develop online interactive tools to help assess occupational risks. Although such tools have many benefits, their design must follow certain fundamental principles to ensure their effectiveness.

Progress in information technologies and use of the web is now leading to the development of a range of interactive tools to help assess occupational risks. Given the difficulties faced by micro-enterprises (MEs) in preventing occupational risks, several risk prevention bodies have focused on the opportunities offered by these new technologies to assist all MEs in their risk prevention efforts. Within the framework of the OiRA project, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) has organised exchanges between contacts from various European risk prevention bodies which are developing interactive risk assessment tools. Through its work with MEs/SMEs, the INRS has contributed to this approach by becoming involved in the development of French sectoral tools in the areas of hairdressing, confectionery, road transport and catering.

This article summarises the benefits of these tools in terms of overcoming the difficulties faced by MEs in meeting their occupational health and safety obligations. It details the principles to be followed when building and deploying such tools, based on the experience gained.

Given their potential benefits, such tools will quickly develop. Public bodies must therefore offer free high-quality tools to enterprises. The development of this type of offer is now also expressly included within the strategic programmes of various risk prevention bodies in Europe.

In order to better understand the difficulties faced by small enterprises in assessing occupational risks, we can refer to the results of inspection campaigns regularly conducted by the Labour Inspectorate. As an example, the 2010 European campaign on addressing risks associated with hazardous chemical agents[1] or the 2008 national campaign on occupational exposure to wood dust[2] reveal that many enterprises with fewer than 10 employees fail to assess these risks: 44% in car repairs, 46% in the cleaning sector, 47% in the wood sector (building and furniture). Where risk assessments do exist, their quality is poor, as shown by the extent to which chemical risks are addressed in the occupational risk assessment documents of vehicle garages and cleaning enterprises (see Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1 : Chemical risk taken into account in the occupational risk assessment document (DUER) following the size of the enterprise (example based on the companies from the car repair sector)
Figure 2: Chemical risk taken into account in the occupational risk assessment document (DUER) following the size of the enterprise (example based on the companies from the cleaning sector

The ESENER European survey[3] offers some explanations for this. It clearly shows a lack of concern about health and safety at work (see Figure 3) and that the statutory obligation is the main motivation for the enterprise to undertake an assessment of occupational risks (see Figure 4). It should be noted that this survey does not address the even worse situation among those enterprises employing fewer than 10 workers.

Figure 3: Reasons why risk assessments are not carried out
Figure 4: Main reasons for addressing health and safety at work

Given these findings, several risk prevention bodies – in the Netherlands, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Spain and France and also at European level through the EU-OSHA’s OiRA project – have proposed innovative tools to assist small enterprises in meeting their statutory risk assessment obligation and to improve their ability to implement preventive measures.

All these bodies have chosen similar tools allowing the development of sectoral applications, which can be freely accessed over the internet. These choices are now proving pertinent given the level of equipment and connection of enterprises and individuals, as well as the general trend of moving towards paperless procedures. This is apparent from a survey conducted by Ifop (French Institute of Public Opinion) for the INRS in 2012 among enterprises with fewer than 50 employees.[4]

Allowing access to these tools over the web offers several important advantages:

  • They can be accessed by a huge number of enterprises without having to manage the costs and constraints of printing and sending out paper-based documents.
  • Search engines (if properly used) enable enterprises to be steered towards online resources meeting their expectations.
  • It is easy to update content via simple management interfaces.
  • Further information provided through links to other online media and through multimedia content (pictures, audio, video, etc.) can help to explain, expand upon or supplement certain points.
  • The online status of these tools also allows their use to be statistically monitored.

Small enterprises often say that they need assistance with risk prevention, due to their lack of internal skills in this area. Given the number of MEs, risk prevention bodies are unable to assist each enterprise individually. However, implementing simple preventive measures does not require a high level of expertise. Interactive and ergonomic IT tools offer a solution to this problem. Intuitive navigation, educational content, the ability to work at your own pace and interrupt your work thanks to backup systems, and the integration of help tools are all options allowing users to be guided, step by step, in their work. It must be possible to use the tool independently so that an extensive user help service is not required. In this respect, experience shows that users either manage to use the tool independently (using the integrated help) or they struggle and abandon it. Very few users take the step of contacting the administrators to ask for help.

Simple and practical sectoral tools

In order to be effective, such tools must follow certain guiding principles. First of all, they must be sectoral: this is both an essential condition (so that they can address the concerns and real situation of the enterprise) and a constraint (due to the number of tools which must be developed to cover enough main sectors). In order to solve this problem, several bodies have developed solutions based on a single IT architecture with multiple sectoral applications. This solution allows development costs to be controlled and the offer to be standardised to a certain extent, while meeting the need for content which closely corresponds to the specific aspects of each occupation. The Irish tool BeSMART[5], the Dutch tool RI&E[6] and the European tool OiRA which is inspired by the latter but develops the logic further by pooling content at a European level, are a good illustration of this approach.

Given the target public and aim of these tools, they need to be simple. The goal is to enable enterprises, which are generally ‘immobile’ in terms of risk prevention, to take their first steps in this respect. The significant potential offered by current software must not therefore lead to the development of expert tools but, instead, to screens and interfaces which are as simple as possible to use. Likewise, the number of hazardous situations to be addressed must be modest, with the focus being on the main types of accident which may occur in the target sector. Finally, the vocabulary used must be specific to the occupation in question.

These tools must also be practical and precisely respond to the expectations of enterprises. They must allow an assessment report complying with the statutory requirements (document which can serve as the occupational risk assessment document for a French enterprise (the so-called “document unique”) to be produced and printed, and they must suggest preventive measures which are ‘standard’ in the sector, with the idea being to encourage the enterprise beyond the simple identification of risks towards the implementation of a preventive action plan. These tools should enable actions to be planned and their implementation to be monitored. When left to themselves to assess risks, small enterprises naturally (due to a lack of skills) end up with ‘poor’ solutions in terms of risk prevention, namely personal protective equipment and safety instructions. These tools must enable users to conceive and develop preventive measures specific to their enterprise. However, by suggesting measures which are recognised in the sector, the chances of some measures being implemented are significantly increased, and measures can also be promoted which are deemed appropriate by occupational health and safety experts. The tool then becomes a medium for sharing best practices in risk prevention within a profession.

Tools integrated within sectoral initiatives

Even where these IT tools are high quality and relevant in terms of their content, they are not enough in themselves to mobilise enterprises in their risk prevention efforts. They are simply a way of guiding a small enterprise, provided that the latter has decided in advance to undertake a risk assessment. That is why it is vital that they are integrated within broader initiatives to mobilise the sectors concerned and are accompanied by promotional actions. In this respect, the involvement of certain stakeholders is essential, particularly social partners in the sector concerned and occupational health and safety experts who can be contacted by small enterprises, particularly occupational health services in France. If the latter were to include these tools within their enterprise assistance service, they would become a very important driver for the deployment of these tools. They must therefore find some added value in these tools. The tool developers should therefore include this requirement in the design of their applications. Furthermore, the involvement of professional bodies from the sectors concerned will lend credibility to the tools and facilitate their promotion among small enterprises.

Paper-digital link

Integrating these applications within a wider range of tools also raises the issue of linking paper media and digital media. Given the characteristics of entrepreneurs and how they tend to work, the paper medium remains essential, but the number of MEs to be reached requires the complementarity of paper and digital media to be rationalised and addressed. For example, the first two OiRA applications developed by the INRS in the road transport and traditional catering sectors are both digital versions of existing paper guides. Users therefore have a choice between using a paper guide, a computer tool or both, given that their content is the same. While paper can be easier to read, with its contents therefore being more easily assimilated, the digital version is more useful for conducting the actual risk assessment. Other methods also offer advantages, for example a combination of a very short paper medium, which can therefore be widely circulated and helps targets to understand the importance of risk assessment, and the online tool, which allows them to carry out the risk assessment and which has more in-depth and easily updatable content.

Extent of the relationship with users

One of the most significant issues faced by developers of these tools concerns the extent of the relationship that may or may not be established with users. Regardless of compliance with personal data protection regulations, the range of technical options is huge, from the totally open and anonymous tool to one allowing precise individual monitoring. There is currently no consensus on the best solution, as this depends on the development context, the nature of the developers, the intended target and the goal pursued. However, experience shows that an open tool not requiring precise identification of the enterprise is more reassuring for users who will use this tool more readily where it guarantees their anonymity. On the flip side, developers can obtain little useful information from users and cannot take advantage of the tool to initiate a relationship with them.

By contrast, a tool requiring precise identification of the enterprise risks putting off some users who will fear that their data will be processed by the authorities, with potential consequences (a visit of a labour inspector, for example). However, this approach allows the tool administrators to forge a relationship with the enterprise, which can benefit in turn by being informed about updates to the tool, legal amendments applying to its sector or about new services on offer.

So far developers have generally chosen solutions which guarantee the anonymity of enterprises so as to encourage use of these tools. However, they also indicate a desire to be able to contact users and gather fairly detailed information about the use of these tools, such as: how many times do they connect to their session? Which hazardous situations are the most frequently identified? Are preventive measures being adopted, for which risks? And so on.

The trend towards the development of IT tools to help with the assessment of occupational risks now seems to be unavoidable, as demonstrated by the numerous projects which have appeared in recent years. However, the emergence of these new media is shaking up the practices of occupational health and safety experts. The question now being asked is not therefore whether or not to take this approach, but rather which is the most appropriate approach in order to develop risk prevention. In this context, exchanges between counterparts engaged in very similar projects are proving particularly useful. For this reason, the EU-OSHA wants to develop these exchanges through a network of correspondents on these subjects. This approach is clearly beneficial in terms of identifying the key factors for success, exchanging best practices and implementing project management.

References

  1. 2010 European campaign on addressing risks associated with chemical agents which are hazardous to the health and safety of employees, Summary Report, May 2011
  2. Occupational exposures to wood dust, Results of the 2008 national campaign, INRS HST PR.41-217, 2009
  3. European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER) 2009, https://osha.europa.eu/sub/esener/en/
  4. Assessment of chemical risks in small enterprises, INRS/Ifop survey which can be viewed at https://inrs.fr
  5. Tool developed by the Irish Health and Safety Authority (HSA), https://besmart.ie
  6. Tool developed by the Dutch Organisation for Applied Scientific Research (TNO), which so far has allowed over 170 occupational applications to be developed, https://rie.nl (in Dutch)