EU strategic framework on health and safety at work 2021-2027
The new 2021-2027 OSH framework, announced in the European Pillar of Social Rights action plan, sets out the key priorities and actions necessary for improving workers’ health and safety over the coming years in the context of the post-pandemic world. This is a world that will be marked with green and digital transitions, economic and demographic challenges and the changing notion of a traditional workplace environment. There are three broad objectives to the framework - change, prevention and preparedness.
For close to 20 years now, EU OSH strategic frameworks have played a pivotal role in the way national authorities and social partners decide on OSH objectives. These objectives include (i) increasing alignment on common priorities; (ii) facilitating cooperation; (iii) triggering investment in OSH; and (iv) promoting concrete actions at workplace level.
The new strategic framework therefore focuses on three crosscutting key objectives for the coming years:
|-||Anticipating and managing change in the new world of work brought about by the green, digital and demographic transitions.|
|-||Improving prevention of workplace accidents and illnesses.|
|-||Increasing preparedness for any potential future health crises.|
To deliver on these objectives, action is needed at EU, national, sectoral, and company level.
In the context of the progressive digitalization of work and the risks presented by it, the framework document also draws attention to the Commission’s proposals for a regulation governing machinery products and another regulation governing artificial intelligence. Above all however, it places special emphasis on workers’ mental health, which in the past has frequently been neglected. Even without the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the digital transformation at the workplace can challenge and overwhelm the human psyche in a variety of ways. For this reason, the Commission has announced an EU initiative to assess problems in workers’ mental health caused by digital work and propose guidelines for countermeasures by the end of 2022.
Prevention continues to be a core theme of the strategy. More investigations of workplace accidents, more information for workers, and stricter enforcement of safety and health regulations are intended to help achieve the ambitious goal of Vision Zero. The work-related causes of cardiovascular diseases and musculoskeletal disorders are still not sufficiently researched, nor are employees and employers adequately aware of them.
Under the third heading, Preparedness for future crises, the Commission has outlined a contingency procedure for future potential health crises. This particularly includes a mechanism for Member States to notify the Commission of the occurrence of crisis-related occupational health hazards and corresponding national safety and health plans.
The COVID-19 pandemic has hit European companies and employees hard, but lockdown measures to tackle the spread of the virus have increased teleworking and raised questions on how teleworking can be done in a health promoting way. Though there are some guidelines and recommendations in the area, few are research based. In Austria, the issue has been directly researched by Gert Lang and Kathrin Hofer-Fischanger
There is no uniform definition, but teleworking is understood as a form of work which is carried out at a distance from the employer using communication and information technology. However, working conditions at home do not always comply with the general principles of the Luxembourg Declaration and the Austrian quality criteria of holistic workplace health promotion (WHP).
Against this background, the Austrian Health Promotion Fund (Fonds Gesundes Österreich) together with the FH JOANNEUM University of Applied Sciences has undertaken an applied research project using an expert workshop and an online survey of Austrian companies who operated teleworking in the course of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The results were recently published in a factsheet and are summarised here:
- The extent of teleworking and the proportion of the workforce that could make use of teleworking increased significantly during the 1st lockdown and did not return to the pre-lockdown level afterwards.
- Companies listed several arguments for (e.g. increased flexibility, autonomy, satisfaction) and against teleworking (e.g. management challenges, leadership at distance, difficult communication, lack of teamwork).
- Health-promoting telework was mostly rated as very important, useful and good by the companies. Half of the companies reported being willing to enable telework. Teleworking companies were better prepared for the pandemic and took advantage of support materials or training on health promotion and telework.
- Respondents would like to see a number of changes to make telework more conducive to health, e.g. to integrate telework as part of corporate culture, having managers who are open to telework and appropriately trained, ensuring the necessary technical equipment is provided, and ensuring there are clear guidelines and regulations for telework.
Based on the results a number of recommendations for health-promoting actions were made:
- Stay connected: ensure technical, structural and cultural conditions; communication between managers and employees
- Adapt WHP programmes: adapt WHP measures to changed working conditions
- Foster virtual participation: make decisions together, especially in virtual participation processes
- Define health-promoting framework conditions: e.g. with regard to frequency of telework, company regulations about usage of teleworking
- Offer individual support measures: offer counselling in stressful professional or personal situations, use guidelines and training and further education.
Many people associate telework predominantly with technical or legal issues. Telework is still poorly understood in the sense of a holistic health-promoting approach in which working conditions at the telework place are understood comprehensively, e.g. ergonomic, social influencing factors, physical conditions. Personal competences and skills (time and self-management, ability to concentrate) must also be included. It is necessary to offer customised training to be able to promote the health of employees in a holistic sense at work at home in order to boost the competence and knowledge building of decision-makers in workplace health promotion.
 Gert Lang, Austrian Health Promotion Fund, Austrian National Public Health Institute & Kathrin Hofer-Fischanger, FH JOANNEUM University of Applied Sciences, 1. Jun. 2021
 ENWHP. (2007). Luxemburger Deklaration zur betrieblichen Gesundheitsförderung in der Europäischen Union. https://www.enwhp.org/resources/toolip/doc/2018/05/04/luxembourg_declaration.pdf (1.6.21)
 cf. 15 quality criteria of WHP of the Austrian Health Promotion Network - Österreichisches Netzwerk Betriebliche Gesundheitsförderung (ÖNBGF). https://www.netzwerk-bgf.at/ (1.6.21)
 https://fgoe.org and https://www.fh-joanneum.at (1.6.21)
 Hofer-Fischanger, Kathrin; Jurkowitsch, Katrin (2021): Gesundheitsförderliche Telearbeit im Kontext der COVID19-Pandemie – Factsheet. Gert Lang (Ed.). Austrian Health Promotion Fund, Austrian National Public Health Institute, Vienna. The factsheet can be downloaded in German via: https://fgoe.org/BGF_Telearbeit (1.6.21)