Disability and occupational safety and health

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Approximately half of the 42.8 million working-age individuals with disabilities in the European Union (EU) are currently employed. People with an existing health condition or disability should be able to continue working, enter or return to the workforce. Consequently, an accessible and inclusive work model capable of accommodating a diverse workforce and facilitating their (re-)entry and retention in employment is essential.

Disability Employment Package

The European Disability Employment Package represents one of the prominent initiatives of the broader European Commission Strategy for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2021-2030. Its objective is to ensure that persons with disabilities have equal access to the labour market, allowing them to remain employed and, as a result, enjoy enhanced social inclusion and economic autonomy.

The package focuses on six areas, with the following falling within EU-OSHA’s scope:

  • Ensuring reasonable accommodation at work, that is, any change to a job or a workplace needed to enable a person with a disability to apply, perform and advance in job functions or undertake training.

  • Retaining individuals with disabilities in employment and preventing disabilities associated with chronic diseases.

  • Securing vocational rehabilitation schemes in case of illnesses or accidents.

Through the collection and development of relevant resources, EU-OSHA actively contributes to achieving the objectives outlined in the package.

Employers' legal duties

Workers with disabilities in the EU are protected by both anti-discrimination and occupational safety and health (OSH) regulations, with some Member States going beyond these minimum requirements. 

The Employment Equality Directive (Council Directive 2000/78/EC) includes specific provisions to combat discrimination based on, among others, disability. It mandates employers to provide reasonable accommodation for people with disabilities, enabling their participation in employment and training.

OSH-specific legislation like the OSH Framework Directive (Directive 89/391/EEC) requires employers to prevent risks at their source and conduct risk assessments in the workplace. This approach proves valuable in identifying necessary accommodations to support workers with disabilities. Moreover, these regulations call for companies and employers to protect particularly sensitive groups from hazards that specifically affect them. However, preventing risks and making work easier for all workers can enable a worker with a disability to continue working.

In this context, the Workplace Requirements Directive (Directive 89/654/EEC) emphasises the need for special attention to aspects such as doors, passageways, staircases, showers, washbasins, workstations and lavatories used by individuals with disabilities.

Risk prevention and health promotion

A crucial factor in supporting individuals with chronic conditions and disabilities to stay employed is implementing a robust system that manages risks and promotes health and wellbeing. By addressing key areas such as accidents, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), work-related stress, exposure to dangerous substances, work-related diseases and excessive noise, workplaces can reduce the toll on individuals and economies.

Return to work

For people with disabilities to successfully return to work following a medium-to-long-term sickness absence, a well-planned and systematic approach is essential. It is therefore crucial that professionals from various disciplines (healthcare practitioners, occupational therapists, accessibility and disability experts, OSH professionals, human resources personnel, etc.) collaborate in designing and implementing a programme that facilitates the effective return and sustained employment of individuals with disabilities.

EU-OSHA's previous research indicates that the most successful plans combine early-intervention healthcare resources, advice on workplace accommodations and employment, work-focused psychological support, vocational training and guidance and input from social security systems. This tailored approach addresses the specific needs and circumstances of both workers and employers.

Workplace accommodations may include tasks and duties rearrangement, adapting equipment, changing working patterns and retraining workers. A safety and health risk assessment can help determine the choice of accommodations.

Ageing workforce

The proportion of people with disabilities tends to increase with age, an important factor given the current context of an ageing European workforce. Coupled with the rising retirement ages in many Member States, the number of workers with disabilities in the EU is only projected to continue growing.

Therefore, measures such as effective prevention, accessible workplaces and comprehensive return to work policies prove invaluable in preventing premature workforce exits and keeping a sustainable work model.

Working with ill-health conditions

Many individuals with ill-health conditions and disabilities can comfortably work in safe conditions with appropriate accommodations. The specific support and measures required depend on the person and their condition. Here are some examples: 

  • Cancer: facilitating the return to work of cancer survivors can include a phased return and making work more flexible.

  • Cardiovascular disease (CVD):  occupational risk factors impacting people with cardiovascular disease, such as strenuous work, work-related stress, long hours, night and shift work, and exposure to chemical substances like carbon monoxide, should be minimised. These measures should be complemented by workplace health promotion initiatives including physical activity, healthy eating, reduced alcohol consumption and smoking, as well as regular occupational health check-ups to detect risk factors like hypertension or prediabetes.

  • Long COVID: measures to support workers with acute or longer-term symptoms of COVID-19, such as extreme fatigue, are needed to facilitate their return to work.

  • Mental health and work-related stresseffectively managing poor mental health at work, whether work-related or not, involves a combination of prevention measures and support, for instance providing counselling and implementing accommodations such as flexible schedules, additional training and assistance, as well as reduction of workplace noises. Introducing a proactive suicide prevention approach is also encouraged.

  • Rheumatic and musculoskeletal disordersrheumatic and musculoskeletal disorders are among the most common work-related disorders in the EU. Workplace accommodations could include flexible working to accommodate medical appointments, teleworking, altering tasks to reduce the physical workload and ergonomic equipment.

To learn more about workers with disabilities and OSH, as well as effective support in the context of the European Disability Employment Package, check out EU-OSHA’s OSHwiki article on Ill health, disability, employment and return to work. It contains a wealth of invaluable resources.