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06/04/2017

Worker participation in age & OSH management – ensuring healthy workplaces for all

To ensure safe and healthy working lives for all, worker participation in occupational safety and health (OSH) is vital. Lately such participation has been decreasing across Europe, a worrying trend - particularly for older workers.

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OSH representatives can help organisations identify and remove exposure to hazards, and reduce risks for everyone from the day they enter the workplace to the day they retire. Representatives are also important in ensuring that the specific risks faced by older workers are taken into account.

EU-OSHA, together with the European Trade Union Confederation, developed in 2012 a practical guide that explains that the role of the worker representative is to ensure that workers have an input into managerial decision-making when preventive and protective measures are being developed, by reflecting their views, concerns and ideas.

A guide by the UK’s Trade Union Confederation (TUC) goes further and gives specific recommendations with respect to older workers, which is based on the EU OSH “Framework Directive”. For example, the need for employers to make workplace adjustments on the basis of individual and business needs, not age. Employers should also consider modifying tasks to help people stay in work longer, allow staff to change work hours, and encourage regular health tests.

As the OSH Framework Directive points out, employers must consult workers and/or their OSH representatives and allow them to take part in discussions on all questions relating to safety and health at work and make proposals.This creates a work environment that is welcoming to older workers and means employers will benefit from an experienced, dedicated pool of employees.

The TUC guide also has a helpful checklist for OSH representatives. The list of questions is designed to help representatives ensure that the concerns of older workers are taken into account in all aspects of OSH. It asks for example, ‘does your employer have a policy on how they are going to retain and support older workers?’ and ‘are all older workers given time-off for regular health and eye checks?’

A recent report by EU-OSHA, a follow-up to the ESENER-2 study, shows that formal representation of workers on OSH is declining across Europe, while management-led arrangements for OSH participation are on the increase. The ESENER-2 study found good examples of work-centred representation in all 7 EU countries where qualitative studies took place. However, they were only found in a small number of organisations suggesting that good worker representation is far from the norm.

Organisations are increasingly shifting to management system approaches to OSH. While these can be successful, they can also diminish the effectiveness of worker representatives who end up acting simply as the ‘eyes and ears’ of safety managers, rather than autonomously. The reasons behind this shift are complex, but there is evidence to suggest that in countries that have suffered from the recent economic downturn, OSH resources have reduced and worker representation is, at best, a low priority.

Given Europe’s ageing workforce, it is becoming necessary for organisations to make sure everything possible is done to extend working lives and prevent early retirement due to ill-health brought on by work. Worker representatives can play an important role in this by ensuring that all workers are catered for and are listened to. Ultimately a safe and happy workforce is not only good for workers, it can also contribute to productivity and reduce work absences for organisations as well.

Visit the Healthy Workplaces for All Ages campaign website to discover more practical tools and guidance, both for workers and employers. You can keep up-to-date with the latest news and events, and follow us on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, using the hashtag #EUhealthyworkplaces. You can also subscribe to our campaign newsletter.