European Risk Observatory
The aim of EU-OSHA’s European Risk Observatory is to identify new and emerging risks in occupational safety and health, in order to improve the timeliness and effectiveness of preventive measures. To achieve this aim, the ERO provides an overview of safety and health at work in Europe, describes the trends and underlying factors, and anticipates changes in work and their likely impact on occupational safety and health
As our society evolves under the influence of new technology and shifting economic and social conditions, so our workplaces, work practices and processes are constantly changing. These new situations bring with them new risks and challenges for workers and employers which in turn demand political, administrative and technical approaches that ensure high levels of safety and health at work.
The Community Strategy on health and safety at work 2002-2006 identified the need to prepare for these new circumstances, and emphasised that
'anticipating new and emerging risks, whether they be linked to technical innovation or caused by social change, is vital if the risks are to be brought under control.
This requires, first and foremost, ongoing observation of the risks themselves, based on the systematic collection of information and scientific opinions'.
The Strategy, therefore, asked the Agency to set up an European Risk Observatory (ERO) to carry out these tasks. The current Community Strategy 2007-2012 reiterated the importance of risk anticipation, and asked the Agency’s Observatory to take on a range of new initiatives.
How we work
The ERO adds value by gathering and analysing information, putting it in context (in particular in relation to the European social agenda and the Community Strategy), looking for trends in order to 'anticipate change', and communicating the key issues effectively to our target audience: policy-makers and researchers. We also aim to stimulate debate and reflection among EU-OSHA's stakeholders and to provide a platform for debate between experts and policy-makers at various levels.
The information need to identify new and emerging risks may come from a variety of sources, such as data from official registers, the research literature, expert forecasts or survey data. To cover all these potential sources of information, we organise our activities around four basic areas.
Anticipating new and emerging risks
Risk anticipation is the key objective identified for the European Risk Observatory in the Community Strategy 2007-2012. Following consultation and debate with experts and stakeholders, we agreed upon a
working definition of "emerging OSH risks":
any occupational risk that is both new and increasing.
By ‘new’ we mean that:
- the risk did not previously exist and is caused by new processes, new technologies, new types of workplace, or social or organisational change; or,
- a long-standing issue is newly considered as a risk due to a change in social or public perceptions; or,
- new scientific knowledge allows a long-standing issue to be identified as a risk.
The risk is ‘increasing’ if the:
- number of hazards leading to the risk is growing; or
- the exposure to the hazard leading to the risk is increasing (exposure level and/or the number of people exposed); or
- the effect of the hazard on workers' health is getting worse (seriousness of health effects and/or the number of people affected).
The first steps to identify emerging risks were taken with the publication of four expert forecast reports which have covered physical, biological, psychosocial and chemical emerging risks. These reports are the result of expert consultation through a Delphi methodology, and they have been followed up with numerous literature reviews and in-depth reports in order to explore the top risks identified in the expert forecasts, such as workplace exposure to nanomaterials.
The current Community Strategy 2007-2012 asked the European Risk Observatory to ‘enhance risk anticipation to include risks associated with new technologies, biological hazards, complex human-machine interfaces and the impact of demographic trends’. This supports the Observatory’s initiative to launch a foresight project to develop a series of scenarios to explore what could be the impact of technological innovation on occupational safety and health by the year 2020. The project will focus on 'green jobs' as the impetus to 'green' the economy is the opportunity to anticipate potential new risks in these developing jobs and to ensure that effective measures are put in place to prevent them. The scenarios produced should help policy-makers to better assess what decisions they need to consider in order to shape a better future of OSH.
Enterprise survey (ESENER)
From the range of workplace risks, the survey places particular focus on the growing – and relatively new – area of psychosocial risks. These risks, which are linked to the way work is designed, organised and managed, as well as to the economic and social context of work, result in an increased level of stress and can lead to serious deterioration of mental and physical health.
The survey asks respondents about the measures taken at the workplace, the main drivers for taking action and the most significant obstacles. Questions cover management of health and safety in general, management of psychosocial risks and also the participation of workers.
With separate interviews directed at managers and at health and safety representatives, ESENER involves close on 36,000 telephone interviews, covering private and public sector establishments with ten or more employees in the 27 EU Member States, as well as Croatia, Turkey, Norway and Switzerland.
‘OSH in figures’: identification and analysis of trends
This section provides information on specific worker groups, exposures, health outcomes, and industrial sectors, based on the collection, analysis and consolidation of existing hard data from national and international data sources (monitoring system - available in English only) such as:
- Labour Force surveys,
- Workers surveys,
- Accident registers,
- Registers on occupational diseases,
- Death registers,
- Exposure registers.
The sources are both statistical and analytical background documents. The statistical sources are a combination of administrative registers and statistics (occupational disease registers, exposure registers), surveys, voluntary reporting systems and inspection reports. The combination of different sources with non-comparable data, examples from one Member State only, one-off studies and studies from outside national official data, helps to fill in gaps in knowledge.
The intention is to provide an evidence-base, as comprehensive a picture as possible of the potential OSH issues, risks and health effects on the selected topics and provide recommendations for research, policy and practice.
These reports reflect the main objective of the European RiskObservatory: the earlier identification of emerging trends and risks at work in order to help target resources and to enable more timely and effective interventions.
The 'OSH in figures' series is also complementary to the broad selection of good practice examples collected by the Agency since it was created. Where good practice information is available, you will find links to such information.
For some topics, more detailed information is available from Member states. Where this is the case, separate national reports are provided.
Fostering OSH research coordination in the EU
The European Risk Observatory aims to foster stronger coordination of occupational safety and health (OSH) research across the EU. Many organisations carry out, or fund, OSH research across all the Member States, but –as in other areas– research is often too fragmented, which means that scarce resources may not be best used.
The Observatory’s work on research coordination started when the Community strategy on health and safety at work 2002-2006 asked the Agency to 'act as a driving force in matters concerning awareness-building and risk anticipation' and emphasised the importance of coordination and practical relevance of OSH research, particularly on new and emerging risks: 'Anticipating new and emerging risks, whether they be linked to technical innovation or caused by social change, is vital if the risks are to be brought under control (…). It requires researchers to adopt a consistent approach: research organisations should coordinate their respective programmes, target them to address practical problems arising at the workplace, and make preparations for the research findings to be transferred to firms, and especially to SMEs.'
As a first step, and at the Commission’s request, the Agency prepared a report on OSH research priorities in the EU. The report was prepared in-house and circulated for consultation to the Agency’s network of focal points, EU expert networks, and international OSH organisations. In December 2005, the Observatory hosted a seminar to consolidate the report’s conclusions and bring together the main OSH research institutes from across the EU. This was the first of a series of seminars organised by the Observatory in several Member States to look for ways to increase their cooperation at the level of research programmes.
The report also served as input into the second Community strategy on health and safety at work (2007-2012), and achieved significant impact in terms of setting priority areas, as can be seen in the sections dealing with new and emerging risks, to the extent that this Strategy specifically asked the Agency to 'encourage national health and safety research institutes to set joint priorities, exchange results and include occupational health and safety requirements in research programmes'.
During 2005, the Observatory also played a key role in developing a proposal for a consortium of key research institutions that would promote research cooperation on new and emerging risks. The New OSH ERA consortium, led by the Finnish Institute for Occupational Health, was successful in obtaining funding from the 6th Framework Research Programme, and over the four years of the project (2006-2010) the Agency played a significant role to achieve its ambitious objectives.
Over the next few years, the Agency will continue to foster OSH research coordination, both by seeking a consensus on shared priority topics among the key players –including a review of the 2005 report on OSH research priorities in the EU– and through close cooperation with the Member States and key international networks and organisations such as PEROSH, ILO, WHO or NIOSH.