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January 17, 2011

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Industry perturbed by stress-assessment proposal

Manufacturers have given a firm thumbs-down to proposed European rules requiring that stress and other psychosocial risks be considered as part of risk assessments for musculoskeletal disorders.

A survey of 200 companies, carried out by EEF – the manufacturers’ organisation, has revealed considerable distaste among respondents for more health and safety legislation, but a strong appetite for case-study guidance to control risk.

Respondents were asked about two EU legislation proposals – one relating to MSDs and the other to ionising radiations.

While various individual instruments, including the Manual Handling Directive and the Display Screen Equipment Directive, currently cover the prevention of MSDs, the planned Musculoskeletal Disorders Directive attempts to simplify the law in this area by addressing all significant ergonomic risk factors at work in a single directive. It also proposes that psychosocial factors, such as stress and work pressure, be considered in risk assessments.

Just over a quarter (27 per cent) of respondents to the EEF survey said they already include psychosocial factors in their risk assessments. Asked if this should be made a legal requirement, however, nearly three-quarters (73 per cent) disagreed.

In the UK, companies have a general legal duty to protect workers’ health, and the HSE expects organisations to consider work-related stress, or ‘wellness’ as part of a suitable and sufficient risk-assessment process. But stress is a difficult area to enforce for the HSE, owing largely to the subjective nature of stress assessments and the difficulty in proving that the problem is caused by work-related factors.

The European Commission is also proposing to ‘simplify’ five directives on the health and safety, environmental and medical aspects of ionising radiations into one new directive. A quarter of businesses that responded to the survey work with ionising radiations and of this proportion, 95 per cent believed that the current law should be neither tightened, nor relaxed.

When asked what would help improve control of their key risks, three-quarters of respondents voted for case-study guidance, while nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) opted for non-binding guidance. New legislation was seen as a driver for improvements in the control of risks by less than 10 per cent of respondents, with almost half (49 per cent) disagreeing that it would improve control.

Commenting on the survey findings, Steve Pointer, the EEF’s head of health and safety, praised the HSE’s pragmatic approach to EU legislation but urged the UK Government to work harder to reduce the burden of legislation coming out of Europe.

Writing in his blog on 7 January, he said: “I believe that the European Parliament and Commission need to direct their attention to ensuring that the original structure [of health and safety legislation] is effective in practice. That means that implementation, including enforcement of existing requirements, needs to be effective and consistent across all member states. Enforcement activity should be risk-based, directing activity to higher-risk sectors and those who are not managing risks, and thus putting workers at serious risk.”

To coincide with the survey results, the EEF has also published new case-study guidance on MSDs, which can be accessed at

Hinting that other stakeholders could produce more guidance to help organisations manage their health and safety duties, Pointer remarked: “There also needs to be much better promotion of, and practical support for, duty-holders. That is not just down to the European Commission, or even member governments – employers’ groups, trade unions and others have a key role to play.”

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13 years ago

The HSE have repeatedly said that risk assessments should not be complex and even had a myth of the month cartoon about long winded risk assessments. That seems completely at odds with the EU suggestion. To fully appreciate psychosocial factors the risk assessors would need some specialist knowledge. That is fine by be – I am a consultant with an honours degree in psychology and membership of the BPS but I feel sorry for others who may struggle with a complex subject being forced on them.

13 years ago

The biggest problem I see with additional legistlation is that UK employers attempt to follow it. The legistlation is embraced by UK government/HSE. Honest firms try out of all proportion to the size of the company. While on the continent it seems to be written down and then conveniently ignored. I witnessed some years ago when specialist team arrived in UK to erect a system, no PPE, and wanted to stand on a platform while it was craned so they could stamp it into place, their standard practice.

13 years ago

You say that in the UK, companies have a general legal duty to protect workers’ health, and that the HSE expects organisations to consider work-related stress, or ‘wellness’ as part of a suitable and sufficient risk-assessment process – what if they don’t? I have searched high and low for guidance (and have spoken to the HSE) about how to confront an employer regarding their responsibilities and there is just nothing. I find this irresponsible considering lives are ruined by work-place stress.