The PEROSH research network and EU-OSHA have launched three position papers on the future key challenges for occupational safety and health. Daniela Treutlein and William Cockburn explain the thinking behind them
It has been more than 10 years since the founding fathers of the Partnership for European Research in Occupational Safety and Health (PEROSH) posed a series of critical research questions for occupational safety and health (OSH).
What are the current and future major occupational safety and health risks in Europe? What are the transboundary trends and how can we best create and use synergies in research and innovation in occupational safety and health? How do we best transmit research into practicable solutions for diverse public and private stakeholders, i.e. for workers, companies and policymakers?
Since then, PEROSH has developed into an active, well-structured research network comprising 12 member institutes from 11 EU member states.
With more than 1,000 researchers and experts affiliated to these national research and technology institutes, public authorities and social insurance organisations, PEROSH can be seen as a large, multi-disciplinary European pool of OSH experts.
As such, the network aims to give a wider European voice to evidence-based OSH research. One of its key objectives is joint collaboration in fields of common interest and the network is currently carrying out 12 collaborative research projects, including the recently launched PEROSH ‘Futures’ project for risk observation and trend setting. In its trend observation and trend spotting function PEROSH also collaborates closely with EU bodies, in particular the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA).
Since 2005, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work has been working closely with Europe’s research community to establish priorities for OSH research in the EU.
Following the publication of its first report in 2005, EU-OSHA’s 2013 report Priorities for occupational safety and health research in Europe: 2013-2020 took account of scientific developments, changes in the world of work and trends that are having an impact on OSH.
Future research priorities
Against the backdrop of the European Commission’s development of the EU Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work 2014-2020 and the €80bn European Horizon 2020 research programme , EU-OSHA organised two workshops to discuss research priorities in OSH.
PEROSH institute directors, together with representatives from the European Commission and other experts, were actively involved in these events and the results have been summarised in the EU-OSHA report, Priorities for occupational safety and health research in Europe for the years 2013-2020.
With the aim of raising the visibility of the workshop conclusions and of influencing the European research agenda, the following three position papers were launched in late April:
* Challenge of Europe in a changing world – inclusive, innovative and reflective societies: the changing world of work and OSH. 
* Leadership in enabling and industrial technologies: prevention through design. 
* Health, demographic change and wellbeing: occupational safety and health in the context of demographic change. 
The main purpose of the position papers  is to inform and energise European decision-makers on upcoming and important OSH research challenges and to provide input into the large-scale research programmes such as Horizon 2020.
So what do the three papers cover and what are the research and innovation OSH projects that PEROSH aims to promote in the future?
Changing world of work
The first paper is about the changing world of work and OSH. The trend we see for future workplaces is that globalisation, increasing competition, the rapid spread of information and communications technology (ICT) and the internet will result in a gradual transition from relatively standardised work and working time patterns in organisations towards more complex and diversified working environments in Europe. Think of developments such as increasingly global supply chains, business process outsourcing and the 24/7 economy.
These trends will require organisations to be more flexible in the way they work, resulting in new working patterns. These again could be associated with potential new health and safety risks. At the same time, precarious and atypical employment arrangements as well as temporary work have increased and been linked to relatively poor OSH conditions in scientific literature.
Given these developments, more research is needed to explore these issues further and to help support the introduction of new technologies or work practices in a healthy and safe manner. In order to keep track with the changing world of work, new forms of risk detection and management, for instance in the form of a digital 24-hour OSH monitoring system, should be identified and developed.
Innovative and integrated OSH interventions that consider different health and exposure factors (physical, psychosocial and behavioural aspects of work) also need to be developed to cope with new emerging working environments as well as any possible associated risks. Any future opportunities for OSH also need to be highlighted.
Key enabling technologies
The second paper tackles the EU’s strategic goal of smart, sustainable and inclusive growth via the promotion of key enabling technologies (KETs). The EU sees KETs as a vital source of innovation. Advanced materials, nanotechnology, micro- and nano-electronics, biotechnology and photonics have been identified as priority areas for improving European industrial competitiveness.
Furthermore, the EU’s research and development programme Horizon 2020 promotes blue growth by exploiting the potential of the oceans. These new KETs will bring new working environments, which may present new health and safety risks.
The second position paper covers the EU’s goal of promoting key enabling technologies, such as nanotechnology and biotechnology
PEROSH’s position paper aims to promote the notion of integrating the ‘Prevention through Design’ (PtD) approach into the early development phase of new technologies, processes and products. This way health and safety risks can be predicted and tackled before KETs enter the market.
To be able to do this, available PtD-approaches need to be evaluated and standardised further, making use of ICT-, ambient intelligence and virtual reality (VR) applications for OSH to design safe and healthy workplaces during their development phase.
Through the application of VR simulation technologies to the OSH field, innovative, preventive solutions could be developed to counter any anticipated occupational health and safety risks from new working environments such as super skyscrapers, giant tunnels or new off-shore industries.
A standardised PtD-approach should further be applied to Industry 4.0 projects assessing the OSH impacts (including psycho-social effects) of new types of man-machine or man-robot interactions or the digitalisation of work.
With the third paper, PEROSH points to the OSH challenges that arise from anticipated demographic developments. Three population segments are expected to grow particularly fast within the next few decades and need to be further integrated into the current and future European labour markets: the elderly, female workers and migrants.
By 2030, older workers will make up 30 per cent or more of the total workforce in many countries. By 2060, close to one-third of the EU-27 workforce will be of foreign descent. Female employment rates continue to rise and this trend needs to continue to reach the envisaged 75 per cent total employment rate in the EU by 2020.
Considering the increased risk for disorders and diseases from an ageing working population, the challenge for European health and social security systems will be to organise work and to design workplaces in such a way that work-related ill-health can be prevented and people are able and motivated to work until the retirement age and remain in good health.
To ensure that this happens, PEROSH needs to investigate and develop innovative diversity-adjusted health promotion and workplace design solutions to combat large-scale health problems such as obesity. One solution for battling this major public health problem could be the prevention of increasing sedentary behaviour at work.
A number of PEROSH member institutes currently analyse and develop innovative physical activity interventions and newly designed office equipment such as dynamic workstations.
From a systemic point of view, effective ways are needed to better integrate public and occupational health management in the social security and health governance systems. This becomes especially evident in the health care sector, which will most likely experience a double ageing effect in the coming years: more elderly patients will have to be treated by an ageing workforce leading to severe capacity problems if working conditions and working environments stay as they are.
However, as important as the individual topics may be, the unifying message of all three position papers is that occupational health and safety matters and OSH investment does pay off. 
In the medium and long-term future effective OSH measures and management will be essential to ensure that European companies are productive and globally competitive.
Secure, healthy and sustainable workplaces will be a major factor in ensuring companies and the EU economies remain competitive. This is because they provide the basis for attracting the most talented people, future leaders and investors.
For the Innovation Union to become a reality, Europe needs to invest in and fully exploit its human capital by creating modern and healthy working environments. It also needs to further promote research and development in key enabling technologies. Integrating a standardised prevention-through-design approach in the KETs development phase will save a huge amount of time and resources.
- 6. BENOSH project. Full study report. EU Commission, November 2011.
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Daniela Treutlein is EU affairs coordinator, PEROSH research network and William Cockburn is head of the prevention and research unit, European Agency for Safety and Health at Work
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