Occupational Safety: Focus on Health

Healthy, motivated employees are a guarantee of success for any company. However, there’s potential for improvement when it comes to occupational health and safety. The DEKRA Occupational Safety Report 2021 uncovers problem areas and issues in need of improvement. DEKRA expert Dr. Karin Müller also emphasizes what really matters.

Established rules and regulations ensure greater safety at work. Photo: Adobe Stock / Quality Stock Arts

Even before the Corona pandemic, trends and developments such as digitization, home office, as well as employee health have always played a major role. On behalf of DEKRA, the market and opinion research institute forsa surveyed around 1,500 employees from various sectors in Germany.

The pandemic situation is still top news: The survey found that the majority of employees (73 percent) feel well protected from the coronavirus in their workplace. A similar number said that cleaning measures were sufficiently thorough and hygienic. Workspaces have been rebuilt or reorganized for more than half of employees. It’s interesting to note that – given the choice – almost half of the respondents under 35 are slightly more likely to choose to work from home. Almost all employees who (also) work from home feel very well protected against infection in their homes.

Working from Home – Both Curse and Blessing

More than one in three people believe that working from home significantly reduces the risk of contracting the virus.

Other advantages of working from home: There’s no need to commute to work (82 percent of respondents), you can wear comfortable clothing, and you can flexibly allocate your time (67 percent). In addition, concentration is better at home than in the office, at least according to almost half of the respondents. However, many also miss the personal interaction with colleagues (71 percent) or their employer’s attention (23 percent).

What is a blessing for some is a curse for others. Every third respondent – women slightly more often than men – has developed health problems while working from home. This ranges from muscle tension to back pain and headaches. The reason for this are inadequate, non-ergonomic workspaces. After all, 79 percent of survey participants sit in front of a computer screen every day.

Healthy Employees Are Key

That’s why investments in workplace health promotion pay off, though many companies could pursue even more intensive measures. Just under one in three respondents stated that their employer offers preventive examinations, for example for computer work. 28 percent of the respondents stated that they have access to professional workplace design or cooperations with gyms.

However, the figures don’t show any improvement compared to the 2017 survey. While the construction, skilled trades, industry, and warehousing sectors do show better results, overall 36 percent or respondents say that their employer doesn’t offer any workplace health promotion measures. 62 percent of respondents in retail and sales, for example, aren’t offered such measures.

There’s also some catching up to be done when it comes to assessing psychological hazards in the workplace: Only 26 percent of respondents say that such an assessment as been conducted in their companies. This isn’t the case for well over half of the respondents (59 percent). Compared to the 2017 survey, this result has deteriorated by seven percent.

The dramatic nature of the situation is also reflected in the fact that 88 percent of those surveyed believe that negative stress is increasing. 71 percent rate psychological stress at work as higher or as high as physical stress. A clear majority (80 percent) believe that more needs to be done to combat absenteeism due to mental illness. 

Safety Rules and Regulations – Room for Improvement

More safety in the workplace is ensured by established rules and regulations, which employers must communicate. According to the survey results, three quarters of respondents are fully aware of the safety rules. Around one in five knows them to some extent. Three percent of respondents don’t know the safety rules and regulations. People working in construction, trades, industry, and warehousing know the safety rules well, because they often benefit from regular training or information letters.

Younger employees under 35 and those who work in an office are only partially aware of the rules. According to the survey, more than half of the respondents receive regular training. For one in five employees, this is only the case at irregular intervals. Ten percent receive no training at all. Employees in construction, trades, industry, and warehousing receive training more frequently than average. Seventy percent think it’s very good or good to be trained using digital options.

One drawback: According to the survey, safety rules and regulations in the workplace are only observed to their full extent by 45 percent of employees. Compared to the DEKRA/forsa survey of 2017, the current result represents a decline of eleven percentage points. Here, too, the construction, crafts, industry, and warehousing sectors stand out positively, with the highest percentage of compliance with rules and regulations.

Expert organization DEKRA offers a range of services that companies can take advantage of. You can find more info here.

Three Questions for Dr. Karin Müller, Head of the People and Health Division at DEKRA

Dr. Karin Müller, Head of the Human & Health Department at DEKRA. Photo: Thomas Küppers
Dr. Karin Müller, Head of the People and Health Division at DEKRA. Photo: Thomas Küppers

What are the most important measures to promote the well-being and health of employees in companies?

The prerequisite is to understand the promotion of health and well-being as a genuine management task, starting with the top management. Only then can the idea be established top-down that a company’s success doesn’t depend solely on profitability, but also on the way it deals with its asset “employee”. The two are interrelated. It’s best to view employees not merely as assets, but as partners in achieving a company’s goals.

The development of health and well-being should be approached systematically. It doesn’t have to happen all at once. It’s important to set priorities, which will vary from company to company, depending on the industry and prevailing workplace types. For example, ergonomic tips and exercises will look very different in an administration department with many office workstations than in a logistics center. The same applies to measures based on mental stress, which result from very different activities in each case. In the legally required risk assessment (physical and mental), all hazards and stresses are systematically recorded, from which suitable measures can then be derived and introduced.

What should a company take into consideration when setting up a health management system?

A common mistake is to regard individual health promotion measures, for example back therapy training, as occupational health management. However, one can only speak of management when it involves genuine project and process management. This includes at least the following factors: determination of responsibilities, definition of budgets, linking of different actors and processes such as company doctor, safety specialist, HR department, but also training department, purchasing (ergonomic furniture), and IT, to name only the most important. Measures specifically derived from a key figure analysis, like risk assessment, must also be systematically followed up and evaluated in terms of their effectiveness.

Regarding the buzzword “new work”: What will occupational health management focus on in the future?

Most certainly on psychological stresses and resulting strains on employees. Physical work will gradually decline, for example through the increasing use of robotics and automation, but even then particular mental stresses can arise from collaboration at the human-machine interfaces. In general, not only work intensification and issues of constant accessibility can lead to higher psychological stress, but also increasingly shorter cycles in the introduction of digital solutions. Very important: Occupational health management must never focus solely on the individual and his or her behavior, but must also help shape circumstances, for example ergonomic workspace solutions, intuitive operator guidance, and much more.

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