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World's greatest threats directly impact occupational safety and health

Publication date 2.2.2021 16.59

The Global Risks Report  of the World Economic Forum includes extreme weather and climate action failure, infectious diseases and digital inequality in the list of world’s greatest threats in 2021. These issues also directly impact occupational safety and health (OSH). 

The Nordic Future of Work* group has analyzed in more details among others these threats in a report titled “Work today and in the future” published on September 15th, 2020.  This text is based on the report and the writers of this article are members of the Nordic Future of Work group.

Threat No. 1: Extreme weather and climate action failure

World of work and workplaces are impacted by environmental and climate change. Moreover, we are likely to see increasing number of natural catastrophes like floods, forest fires and landslides, which will require a larger number of workers to respond to such emergencies; firefighters, rescue workers and emergency responders. The extent of physical and psychological hazards that these workers may sustain will rise.

Climate change also exacerbates the number of extreme cold days. Cold work environments are a reality especially in the Nordic countries for outdoor workers like construction workers, fishermen, repair and maintenance workers and farmers.

Simultaneously, the Nordic countries are gradually manifesting more temperate weather. Such development, will create conducive environments for novel pathogenic organisms. For example, tick distributions are closely linked with the climate. There is a growing concern that tick-borne diseases such as Lyme disease and tick-borne encephalitis will increase in Northern Europe.

Preventive actions

We need more knowledge and more research on climate change and its impact on OSH practices and policy. The links between climate change and OSH hazards have to be made evident and these risks have to be included in OSH risk-assessments in workplaces.

Occupational Health Services could certainly play a decisive role in identifying, and accounting for climate related hazards in their contributions to risk assessments at workplaces.

Threat No. 2: Infectious diseases

Anything that happens everywhere, can happen anywhere, was the opening statement of Nordic Future of Work group's meeting in the ICOH  Congress in Dublin in 2018.

The idea was to set  focus on the rapid spread of technologies fueled by globalization, but the statement was inspired by the fact that infectious diseases travel, and travel fast across the globe.

At that time in 2018 although a potential pandemic was mentioned in the passing in the context of Future of Work, in 2020 we met the distant “future” in the imminent “present” with COVID-19.

Pandemics are bound to have a lasting impact on the world of work in general and OSH in particular. Unemployment, loss of income and income inequalities will intensify in such a scenario as countries and continents will continue lock down businesses and travel as much as possible.

But frontline workers will remain actively employed and perform their duties even in such crises; workers in health care, emergency response, law-enforcement, cleaning services, retail trade and other essential services. These workers will be exposed to disproportional risk of hazardous biological exposure compared to other workers during pandemics.

OSH strategies

Preventive OSH strategies should be devised in tandem with the different phases of pandemic. However, development and implementation of preventive strategies remain a tough task because in a pandemic, knowledge evolves and changes very rapidly.

Uncertainty regarding the routes of transmission of novel infections such as covid-19 could create hazardous situations for the workers during the early phase of a pandemic. In dealing with future pandemics, we have to consider judiciously applying the precautionary principle while devising preventive strategies for adequate protection of workers.

The question that begs to be asked is that in the field of OSH should we continue to follow the precautionary principle or should we wait for conclusive evidence to initiate preventive action. This aspect is revealed by the lack of consensus and emerging evidence on spread of the virus (aerosol versus droplet) which has direct implication on OSH with regards to the type PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) that should be recommended to better protect the workers.

Work from home-office

The pandemic also increased the use of home offices exponentially. Working from home challenges employers and workers in relation to psychosocial and organisational risk factors.

Working alone, ergonomic workstations, long working hours, inability to log off from work, increased screen-time and imbalance in work-life are some of the issues that impact the health and safety of workers. Although many of these issues are known OSH challenges, it is the magnitude of this problem that present a challenge in times of pandemics.

Preventive actions

More collaboration with national emergency preparedness agencies is needed so that OSH preventive aspects are considered fundamental in planning the local, national and global emergency preparedness plans.

In addition to physical and organisational measures to diminish spread of viruses, the availability of appropriate and quality approved PPE has to be ensured to secure a sufficient supply for all workers at risk.

The current working environment regulations have to be re-evaluated with regards to the health and safety protection it offers to workers working from home on long-term or permanent basis.

Special attention should be paid to employers’ responsibility when regulating workspaces in the workers' home while still ensuring the privacy of the workers.

Threat No. 3: Digital inequality

We are facing polarisation and fragmentation of work-life, with significant contrasts between the haves and have-nots of the working population. We see considerable differences in technological skills, qualifications, competence and incomes. 

A technologically enabled worker will be capable of skillfully navigate the digital terrain for acquiring more jobs and securing positive reviews from customers in the platform economy. Conversely, a digitally less skilled worker is bound to lose out on digitally administered work such as those ordered through digital platform. This will give better income opportunities to the digitally enabled worker, while concurrently will lead to loss of income, or even job loss for those workers who are less enable in terms of digital skills. 

Such a development could compound the occupational health inequalities in work-life thrusting digitally less-skilled worker into undeclared work and social dumping.

Preventive actions

All workers now and, in the future, will need constant upskilling and education to remain competitive and secure gainful employment in a digitally driven work-life.

Technologies of the future need to be human centric and inclusive such that workers with differing capabilities and skills are included in the digitally fueled economies of the future.

OSH risk assessments in the future need to include the short and long-term impact of constant precarious work, and preventive efforts should target reduction of occupational health inequalities potential induced by emerging digital technologies. 

Päivi Mattila-Wiro           
Ministerial Adviser          
Ministry of social affairs and health

Wiking Husberg 
Independent Consultant

Yogindra Samant
Chief Medical Officer
Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority

* The Nordic Future of Work Group started its work in 2016 and since then the group has given important insights into how each Nordic country looks at specific national challenges regarding the future of work and occupational safety and health and what measures have been taken to deal with these challenges. The group is formed altogether by 7 occupational and safety professionals from Nordic countries.