New outlook for occupational risk trends

A new report published by the Danish Working Environment Authority provides an outlook for occupational risk trends for the period 2010 to 2020. The report emphasises that occupational risks should not be considered as changing abruptly but rather as evolving gradually. According to the report, the main working environment issues to be addressed in the labour market as a whole are psychosocial and musculoskeletal risk exposure together with work-related accidents.

Background to report

In March 2010, the Danish Working Environment Authority (Arbejdstilsynet, AT) published a report assessing the likely development in occupational risk trends from 2010 to 2020. The report, entitled The working environment of the future 2020 (Fremtidens arbejdsmiljø 2020 (1.2Mb PDF)), aims to provide the basis for a prioritisation and coordination of activities in the relevant parts of the Danish working environment system (in Danish). Thus, the concept of the report is similar to the 2010 outlook for risk trends published in 2005 (DK0601NU05).

The 2005 report led to the prioritisation of four target areas, which have been the focus of efforts to reduce risk exposure in the working environment from 2005 to 2010: occupational accidents, the psychosocial working environment, musculoskeletal disorders and noise. However, a new assessment of future risks is now to guide interventions in the working environment.

Nature of working environment risks

The development of working environment risks is closely linked to labour market developments. As the report emphasises, the starting point for an assessment of occupational risk trends should be the direction of change in the occupational structure. However, this should not – as the report also underlines – overshadow the fact that the occupational structure in the labour market, and thus the face of working environment risks, changes in a gradual manner and not abruptly. The best way to address future working environment risks is to understand the present situation, and not that of 2020.

In the Danish context, risk trends are likely to reflect the issues arising from the following factors:

  • an ageing workforce;
  • problems of recruiting employees in the public sector;
  • an increased trend in the shift towards more service jobs;
  • the trend towards a multiethnic labour market and more migrant workers;
  • a continuation of ongoing developments in the use of technology and work organisation;
  • extensive restructuring of administrative practices in the public sector.

Trends for occupational risk factors

Combining the scenario for significant labour market trends with the documentation of current working environment problems and health outcomes, the report finds that the psychosocial working environment, musculoskeletal risk exposure and occupational accidents should be expected to comprise the main risks in the labour market as a whole.

Nevertheless, it should not be neglected that in specific jobs and economic sectors, other working environment risks may be more prevalent. In the manufacturing sector, for example, risks such as carcinogenic substances and hearing-impairing noise levels are likely to persist and possibly constitute more of a hazard than the psychosocial working environment, for instance.

Moreover, some of the ‘traditional’ risk factors should not be expected to decrease overall. Despite the current trend towards more jobs in the services sector and a decline in manufacturing, chemical risks are not likely to decrease overall, as these risks are also prevalent in many service occupations.

Thus, no fundamental changes in the type of injuries are likely to occur. Rather than undergoing change, the balance in the type of injuries may be shifting to some degree, possibly towards relatively more injuries arising from the psychosocial working environment, such as depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Lack of knowledge presents need for further research

The report also underlines the need for further research and a close monitoring of the working environment. In particular, the use of carcinogenic substances should be closely monitored. Moreover, the possible impact from nano-materials requires attention as the use of this technology is increasing. In addition, it is not yet clear which problems the expected growth in the use of green technologies may present. Increased recycling, for instance, may reintroduce risks that had been eliminated in the manufacturing sector.

Taking this into account, the report calls for further research and a programme for the working environment that may be adjusted in due course should unexpected problems arise.

Rune Holm Christiansen and Helle Ourø Nielsen, Oxford Research

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