Thursday, November 10, 2011

What constitutes an emerging OH&S risk?

Everyone who does environmental scanning in workers’ compensation and prevention gets asked the question, “What constitutes an emerging risk in OH&S?” Over the years, I have created lists of emerging risks based on many sources. Here is how I rationalize what makes the list.
I generally follow the European Risk Observatory’s approach, and consider for inclusion in my list of “emerging OH&S risks" any occupational risk that is both new and increasing. A couple of examples illustrate the sort of reasoning I apply to determining what that means.

“New” means the risk did not exist or was not recognized before. Nano-particles and their application in industry are new risks caused by a new technology and new processes. Workplace bullying and psychological stress are not new but are becoming more widely recognized as OH&S risks, (often newly recognized by legislators, regulators, or the Courts). Cyber-bulling is a relatively new social phenomenon that might fit this category.

The recognition of workplace mental or psychological stress is not really new. However, recognition of it being caused by the expectations for 24/7 connectedness via a smart phone might fit as a new type of workplace or organizational structure that would also fit the definition of “new.”

I am particularly concerned about highlighting those issues where new scientific knowledge allows a long-standing issue or common work practice to be identified as a risk. Historically, asbestos was widely used long after it was known to be carcinogenic. What is the new asbestos? IARC and others have identified shift work that interferes with circadian rhythms as a probable human carcinogen, and an important contributor to other health conditions. To my way of thinking, this should be considered new.

Emerging risks may also be long-standing issues that are seen in a new way, or are rising in society in a way that is increasing the OH&S risk. People have always aged and some people have been overweight or obese, but the aging workforce and the epidemic in obesity should be on the list as emerging OH&S risks. Mumps and Rubella have always been a threat to school staff such as teachers, teaching assistances, and administration but the decline in vaccination levels among school age students may be categorized as an increasing OH&S risk.

None of the above risks would make the list of emerging risks if the risk was not “increasing." Clearly the number of hazards, (like sedentary work, for example), leading to the risk , (obesity), is growing. Nano-particles and processes involving their use make the list because they have moved out of the lab, and are increasing in day-to-day operations in the workplace. The exposure to the hazard, (number of people working shifts that interfere with circadian rhythms), leading to the risk, (cancer), is increasing. In some cases the effect of the hazard on workers' health, (pace of work, mental stress), is getting worse, (more people affected or the magnitude of the effect recognized as more serious).

Creating lists of emerging risks is not an end itself. It is more important that we understand what is going on, apply the precautionary principle, and protect workers by education, design, substitution, work processes, and other strategies.

One of my biggest fears is that future professionals in workers’ compensation OH&S will look back at what we knew today about these emerging risks and ask, “What were they thinking? Why didn’t they recognize the emerging risk?” and more importantly, “Why didn’t they do something?”

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