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7 Health and safety
This theme is concerned with how collective bargaining can be used to ensure adequate health and safety protections in increasingly digitalised workplaces.
The impact of digitalisation on workers’ occupational health and safety is ambiguous. Some aspects of digitalisation can improve well-being at work, for example, by cautioning workers against doing something that may place them in harm's way. However, online work and the use of mobile devices have also been shown to negatively impact workers’ mental and physical health as they can lead to intensification and overload of work.
Health and safety is best dealt with by strong universal legislation. However, the speed of change brought about by digitalisation means that until legislation is sufficient, unions must demand specific protection through collective bargaining on the following issues:
This sub-theme concerns language that proactively promotes workers' health and safety in the context of digitalisation.
Many collective agreements include broad language that promotes worker health and safety in the workplace. When there is strong legislation in place, collective agreements will sometimes reference this. Regardless, unions can help improve occupational health and safety at work.
Trade unions in action: Adopting best practices about occupational health and safety in the digital era
Working conditions and organisational features of workplaces can impact our health and well-being. For example, automation can intensify the pace of work, causing workers to work faster and risk injury. Technologies that allow workers to work from home can encourage longer working hours, impacting workers' well-being. Together the Trade Union's National and European Delegation and the European Public Administration Employers developed a list of best practices on health and safety policy. The document also mentions many other themes explored in the Digital Bargaining Hub.
TUNED / EPSU: Dos and Don'ts regarding health and safety policy in the context of digitalisation
Conduct regular psycho-social risk assessments or at least make sure that psycho-social risks are part of the obligation to carry out regular health risk assessments.
Underestimate the potential risks linked to digitalisation and new ways of working on employees’ wellbeing.
Make sure that verification mechanisms are in place so that the applicable health and safety provisions correctly comply with the EU social partners’ agreement on teleworking.
Assume that workers will know and use the best IT equipment in their interest or of the administration.
Implement ongoing communication campaigns on work-related stress and the risks and signs of burnout as a preventive measure.
Just address issues like burnout and chronic stress when they are already manifesting in the workforce.
Underestimate the collective impact of individual burnouts.
Enhance cooperation between HR professionals, occupational health and safety experts and bipartite committees, employee representatives and unions to manage workplace campaigns.
Raising awareness about the potentially harmful effect of digital technologies and overwork. Support employees in recognizing early warning signs of stress that could lead to burnout.
Assume that the workplace is risk-free.
Be particularly vigilant about the risk of isolation of flexible workers by maintaining intensive communication with and between on-site and off-site staff.
Limit, if necessary, the number of telework days in the interest of employees.
Assume that well-equipped flexible workers necessarily have the same degree of communication with the workplace as teams on-site.
You will see that advice in the TUNED/EPSU agreement above and the contract language below from UK union Unite both reference health and safety assessments. Risk assessments are covered in sub-theme 1.3, but we have highlighted health and safety assessments here because they are a prominent risk. When unions go to the bargaining table, consider including health and safety explicitly when you are negotiating technology assessments and evaluations.
It is agreed that the introduction of any New Technology must comply with all relevant procedures to deal with health and safety issues agreed by the Employer and the Union, as well as all applicable Occupational Health and Safety legislation.
The Employer agrees to inform the Union of any potential impacts on the health and safety of workers that could arise from New Technology and will do so as quickly as possible and in a spirit of openness.
The Union and the Employer agree that the cooperation and coordination of Union representatives is essential to ensure that protections for the health and safety of workers are as effective as possible in relation to New Technology. To this end, New Technology Risk Assessments will be undertaken with the full involvement of all relevant Union representatives, before the agreed introduction of any New Technology in the workplace.
New Technology Risk Assessments will specifically include:
Any potential impacts on the mental health of workers.
Any potential impacts relating to workers with physical disabilities.
Any potential toxicity or side effects from chemical or biological materials that may be used as part of New Technology.
Furthermore, all Union Health and Safety representatives and NTRs (New Technology Reps) will be provided with adequate facility time to attend Union or Union approved health and safety courses relating to New Technology.
This sub-theme is concerned with workers' physical safety and corporeal well-being.
When new technologies and digital tools are introduced, they can reconfigure work processes and practices. Sometimes these changes are physically taxing on workers or present ergonomic issues. This is why tools must be designed with workers in mind. We've already mentioned the importance of worker input and transparency in algorithm design, but the same is true for the machines and physical infrastructure that often accompany digitalisation. This could include changes to workstation design, adjustments to worker movements, screen position, lighting conditions and more. In all cases, changes should, at minimum, conform to legal standards and those that were in place prior to the introduced changes.
Trade unions in action: Advodating for expert evaluations of ergonomics
Understanding ergonomic principles is key to preventing workplace injury, particularly when it comes to issues like repetitive use. German union Ver.di has elaborated model clauses relating to technological change and the deployment of video display units. This clause highlights the requirement for an ergonomically trained person to be involved in the consultation.
In the case of fundamental changes, new construction and conversion plans involving [company] workstations, an ergonomically trained person (with regard to the relevant laws, standards and methods) must be consulted in good time so that changes in planning and execution are still possible. The same applies to the procurement of furnishings and technical equipment for [company] workstations. The competent staff representatives (employee representatives) shall be involved in the approval of [company] workplaces.
Needed action: Limiting screen time at work
There is a need for limitations to be placed on the time that workers spend in front of digital screens like computers and tablets.
We have not yet been able to identify any concrete clauses on health and safety issues related to screen time. This is troubling given the evidence that links increased screen time to headaches, neck pain, myopia, digital eye syndrome and cardiovascular problems.
Collective agreement language limiting screen time during working hours is also important to counteract the steady increase in problems that have accompanied intensive workplace digitalisation. E-learning, the use of social media for work purposes, the requirements of working from home and mobile working have only accelerated this increase.
This sub-theme concerns the impact that digitalisation can have on mental distress and psychological well-being.
Psycho-social risks are plentiful and varied. Workers are commonly expected to work on many tasks at the same time. This can lead to stress and fatigue. Workers who are teleworking or who rely on smart devices that they bring home may feel they can no longer ‘switch off’ in the evenings and at weekends. This risks placing them 'on call' long after their traditional working hours. Working from home can also fuel feelings of isolation. All of these factors make it difficult to clearly divide work and professional life and can lead to increased feelings of anxiety, depression, stress and more. Unions can bargain for language that ensures that digitalisation doesn't take a psychological toll on workers.
Trade unions in action: Including mental health as part of occupational health and safety provisions
It is essential to combat and avoid psychological or psycho-social stressors that emerge in the course of digital change. The sooner these risks and issues are detected, the sooner countermeasures can be implemented. Whether it is through periodic assessments or proactive programs, mental health is key to making sure that workers are able to do their jobs and live rich and fulfilling lives. General principles that include mental health as part of the workplace agenda can help ensure that this important part of workers' health is not overlooked. The Union Syndicale Service Public Européen (FPPE), provides an example of a general clause that acknowledges the risks that workers may face.
(…) general principle that telework should be used in an appropriate manner in order to avoid potential psychosocial risks due to excessive use of telework or isolation of teleworkers.
Union Syndicale Fédérale des Services Publics Européens et Internationaux
Collective Bargaining Agreement
Only those who feel good at work, are healthy and can actively manage health-related stresses will be able to contribute their skills to the fullest extent and fulfill work requirements, will remain capable of learning and changing, and will be able to maintain job satisfaction and performance into old age despite the increased average retirement age.
The health and well-being of employees therefore form a basis for the performance of the public service. […] BGM [Occupational health management] in the Schleswig-Holstein state administration refers to the systematic and sustainable approach with the aim of promoting the ability to work and the health of employees and making work health-promoting.
Works Council Agreement
Trade unions in action: Securing financial commitments for health promotion
Trade unions can negotiate for funds that can be used to promote health and well-being and reduce stress. The German railway trade union EVG developed the language below on funding for health promotion. This approach could be used to promote physical or mental health and well-being.
Good working conditions in the digital world of work In the TV Work 4.0, we have determined that the Works Councils can agree budgets from which additional measures for qualification and health promotion can be financed.
These qualification measures will ensure that colleagues can continue to be employed in their jobs, or in changed or new jobs. The Works Councils negotiate the amount of the budget and the measures to be financed.
Collective Bargaining Agreement
Additional readings on Theme 7: Health and safety
EU-OSHA 2018: Foresight on new and emerging occupational safety and health risks associated with digitalisation by 2025 — Final report. https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/foresight-new-and-emerging-occupational-safety-and-health-risks-associated-digitalisation-2025/view
EU-OSHA 2021: Telework and health risks in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic: evidence from the field and policy implications. https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/telework-and-health-risks-context-covid-19-pandemic-evidence-field-and-policy-implications
Pandya A and Lodha P (2021) Social Connectedness, Excessive Screen Time During COVID-19 and Mental Health: A Review of Current Evidence. Available at: https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fhumd.2021.684137/full#B61
Eurofound/ILO (2017): Working anytime, anywhere: The effects on the world of work, https://www.eurofound.europa.eu/publications/report/2017/working-anytime-anywhere-the-effects-on-the-world-of-work.