A great shock hit Estonian companies last autumn, when the state started demanding that risk analyzes be uploaded to the Labor Inspectorate’s portal. There was a storm in the water glass, people started running around and rustling papers. Smaller companies had never heard of such a miraculous animal as risk analysis. The hearts of larger companies began to ache that their current risk analysis was outdated or not perfect enough. Service providers were bombarded with e-mails as heavily as allies fired the city of Dresden in February 1945. In this article, we will explain in more detail why every company needs a risk analysis, how to prepare it, and when it is wise to turn to specialists.

Why do companies need a work environment risk analysis?

Risk analysis is a tool that helps employers to fulfill their legal obligations to create a safe working environment for their employees. In essence, it is a plan how to eliminate risk factors and reduce their impact. The whole point of occupational health risk assessment is to protect people. This is necessary so that entrepreneurs blinded by high profits do not harm the health of employees or the environment in the quest of earning a profit. This is an issue in developed societies, in underdeveloped cultures the health of the employee has little merit. In Africa and in war zones, both minors and pregnant women are used in hazardous work.

A well-prepared risk analysis helps to increase productivity

Pursuant to § 13-4 (1) of the OHS Act, when preparing a risk analysis of the working environment, the risk factors of the working environment must be determined, if necessary, their parameters must be measured and the risks to the health and safety of the employee must be assessed. The employer can compile it themselves or use a professional service provider. However, if the risk analysis is done without proper knowledge, it is a completely useless document. A high quality risk analysis also helps to increase the company’s productivity and profitability by mitigating the risks in the work environment and maintaining the health of employees. Studies have found a strong link between employee well-being and productivity, which in turn affects a company’s profitability. (1)

Every finger lost in an accident is an economic loss

In a developed society, there is always a shortage of labor – especially skilled professionals. In addition, both agriculture and production still require manual workers. Labor shortages are a hot topic – without a workforce, companies cannot thrive and provide services. Labor shortages are pushing up wages but not improving productivity at the same time. The proposed solution to bring cheap labor into the country causes new problems. (2) Finally, there is no choice but to use existing employees (read: labor resources) as economically and efficiently as possible. Every finger lost in an accident at work and every diminished ability to work due to an occupational disease is economically a loss for a developed society.

Removing risk factors from the work environment is the most effective measure

The rule of thumb in tackling hazards and reducing risks in the work environment is, firstly, eliminating risks or reducing exposure. If risks cannot be removed from the work environment, the second option is to minimize them by improving the conditions of the work environment. A third and final way to reduce the negative effects of risk factors is to use personal protective equipment such as masks and safety shoes. You can read more precisely in § 12-1 (2) 1-8 of the OHS Act on the obligations of the employer to reduce and prevent health risks in the work environment.

Employees must be informed about the results of the risk analysis

Pursuant to § 14 (5) 2) of the OHS Act, the employer must introduce the completed risk analysis to the employees. Employees must be informed about the results of the risk assessment, the hazards in the working environment and the measures taken to prevent health damages. The aim is to raise awareness among employees so that they can properly protect themselves and take into account the dangers at work.

Employees have no internal motivation to wear personal protective equipment

Employers often complain that employees do not use personal protective equipment and do not follow all safety instructions. At the same time, employees have not read or understood the company’s risk analysis. If employees do not understand why protective masks and hearing protectors are used, they have no intrinsic motivation to do so. Employers use threats and exhortations, collecting signatures for instructions and warning signs as sanctions. It’s all about increasing external motivation. At the same time, the employee’s internal motivation, which is much more permanent and stronger than the external one, has been overlooked. (3) (4) An informed decision to use personal protective equipment, such as employee’s desire to protect his or her health, helps to increase internal motivation. In cooperation with the occupational health service provider, it is possible to add internal intrinsic motivation to follow safety instructions through health examinations and training.

How to compile a risk analysis?

During the risk analysis, all risk factors in the work environment are systematically assessed: physical, chemical, physiological, biological, psychosocial, accident risk and the need for first aid. Each risk factor has its own set of rules and the information gathered during the observation of the working environment and the measurement results is used in the assessment. In turn, various science-based sources of information are used in the analysis of health effects.

An example from the furniture industry: how hazards are grouped

In the analysis, it is reasonable to group the risk factors either on an occupational or spatial basis. This breakdown is made according to the room or employees affected by the same work environment factors. For example, in the case of a furniture company, it is necessary to understand in which stage of production process the employees are involved in, what risk factors they are exposed to and whether the employees are exposed to different or identical factors in the work environment. If there are several departments in a furniture factory where different stages of work take place, then there is a high probability that there are also differences in the exposure to risk factors. For example, in one department the parts of the furniture are cut, in the other they are painted and in the third they are glued and assembled, then there are already presumably different factors that affect health.

Cutting furniture is likely to cause noise and dust, therefore, it is necessary to assess whether usage of personal protective equipment is adequate. Vibration may also be a factor if many hand tools are used. There is no noise or vibration in the painting department, but employees are exposed to chemical hazards, such as organic solvents that irritate the skin and respiratory tract, which can also be neurotoxic. In the third department, employees fasten painted and cut parts of furniture together with glue and screws, using hand tools. The staff of the third department is exposed to chemical hazards and vibrations from hand tools.

In all departments, employees need to lift parts of the furniture manually, i.e., the loads are moved manually. In the risk analysis, it is reasonable to analyze the risk factors per department, where each department may have employees with different job titles, but all of whom are more or less exposed to the same risk factors. Of course, the specifics of each group of employees must be taken into account when assessing the risks, and if necessary, subgroups must be formed. If the employees of the furniture company in the example rotate between different departments, it may be wise to analyze the hazards on a job-by-job basis, taking into account the exposure.

It is important to gather information from several sources

It is good practice to collect data from several sources when preparing a risk analysis. In addition to on-site inspections, employees and management should be interviewed, inquiries about measurements and safety data sheets need to be carried out, and employees should be monitored during usual working days. As with the assessment of physical exertion, validated science-based assessment methods must be used for psychosocial burden. The interview alone or the completion of a questionnaire is not sufficient and the latent psychosocial burden may go undetected.

The evaluator must be able to justify how they reached a specific result following the research-based methodology. The subjective opinion that there is no stress in our company and the work is physically easy is not enough. The employer’s ignorance and inability to design a healthy working environment is not pardonable if the responsibility for causing work accident or occupational disease is being evaluated. Sticking your head in the sand will give no shade for the backside…

A quantitative risk assessment would require collecting of a large number of data points to predict the probability of an event occurring. This is not possible in any other case, but for supranational statistics or global companies, as it presupposes the exclusion of random events for a small sample. Research on risk assessment methodologies is being carried out in large, industrialized countries. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. (7) Some service providers offering risk analyses in Estonia practice multiplying numbers (making them more quantitative) in the risk matrix table. Such hocus pocus is confusing for employers, and as the result seems to be complicated, it is believed that the person conducting the risk assessment is probably very competent. In reality, complexity does nothing to alleviate workplace risks.

RISK MATRIX FOR ASSESSING PSYCHOSOCIAL BURDEN

 

How to assess the probability of exposure to a risk factor and the severity of the consequence?

Assessing the likelihood of an event occurring and the severity of the health effects is not always an easy task in practice. The probability of exposure to a risk factor can be assessed quite well by the employer and the employees in general if specific circumstances are presented and right questions asked. For example, how often and for how long a builder uses a cordless drill or grinder that is associated with physical hazard, vibration. In addition, the vibration parameters (oscillation frequency) are specified in the safety instructions of the device. How many hours does the employee spend in a dusty environment and whether personal protective equipment (goggles, masks) is used. This information allows to assess the probability of exposure to the risk factor (unlikely, possible, likely).

Assessing the consequences or the extent of the damage to health is a difficult task

Assessing the severity of the consequences is highly controversial among professionals. What kind of damage to health is considered severe, what is harmful and minimal? Is work-related asthma or hearing loss a serious consequence because it causes permanent illness?

If we follow the rules for assessing damage in the Penal Code, the following are considered to be serious damage to health pursuant to § 118 (1) of the Penal Code: danger to life; a medical condition which lasts for at least four months or is accompanied by partial or absent incapacity for work; severe mental disorder; abortion; severely distorting irreversible face injury, loss of an organ or cessation of its function. One possibility is to take into account the severity of the possible restriction of operation of the RFK (International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health), which is formed due to exposure to the risk factor. Pursuant to § 2 (3) of the Regulation of the Minister of Social Affairs “Guidelines for Determining the Percentage of Incapacity for Work”, all illnesses and injuries of a person and functional disorders caused thereby shall be taken into account in determining the percentage of incapacity for work.

Example: Determining the risk level of chemical X

For example, the work environment contains chemical-X, which the employee is exposed to every day (1 hour / day). It is known from the safety data sheet that chemical X may cause respiratory and skin irritation and asthma. Thus, the likelihood of exposure is likely and the health effects are detrimental (moderate). In the risk matrix, this gives a risk level of IV, i.e. it is a high risk. If a employee uses personal protective equipment at the same time and proper ventilation is provided, the employee is less likely to be exposed to the chemical (“possible” in the risk matrix). We know that the health effects (consequences) of chemical X are minimal at low concentrations. Thus, in a 3 x 3 risk matrix, we get the risk level II of the risk factor together with personal protective equipment and ventilation, i.e. minor risk. Minor risk (II) means that additional measures in the work environment are not necessary and compliance with occupational safety requirements and the use of personal protective equipment is sufficient. If, for example, chemical-X is removed from the work process altogether (e.g. switched to a safer one) or the employee is exposed to it for a shorter time (limiting the working time), the level of risk can also be reduced to insignificant (I). This is not always possible considering the work processes.

 

MEASURES PER RISK LEVELS

When to update the risk analysis?

Although, law does not specify exactly how soon a newly established company must prepare a risk analysis, the lack of a risk analysis does not release the employer from the responsibility to create a safe working environment for employees. In the absence of a risk analysis, sanctions for accidents at work and occupational diseases would be considerably more severe.

The risk assessment should be updated. Pursuant to § 13-4 (4) of the OHS Act, the employer shall update the risk analysis if the working conditions or working environment have changed significantly. The situations where tools or technology have been changed or upgraded need attention as well. In some cases, new data on the effects of a hazard on human health may have emerged or the level of risk may have changed from the initial level due to the accident. In addition to the above, the risk assessment must be updated if occupational health physician has identified a work-related illness during an employee health examination.

When to involve a specialist?

When assessing risks in the work environment, the person compiling the analysis must be able to identify the likelihood of occurrence for each hazard and the health effects on the employee (magnitude of the consequence). If the person preparing the risk assessment does not have necessary knowledge about the health effects of the risk factor, it is not possible to obtain an adequate assessment on the severity of damage. For example, the carcinogenic effects of wood dust or the carcinogenicity of heavy metal particles flittering around during welding (nickel, chromium, manganese) are not known. The same applies to the assessment of the probability of the occurrence of a hazard – if there is no ability to notice and detect hazards in the work environment, it is not possible to make an appropriate assessment of their occurrence.

It is difficult to plan the elimination of risk factors in the work environment if their detection and assessment has not been successful

If the risk analyst does not collect information systematically and does not use evidence-based methodologies, problems are often overlooked. This results in an inadequate assessment of the risks in the working environment and hazards for employees’ health. In addition, it is difficult to plan for the elimination of work environment hazards if they have not been identified and assessed. The result is sad numbers of accidents at work and in employee health statistics.  The effects of various risk factors and planning their containment is difficult. Assessing the physical and mental load is especially complicated, as there are no official standardized tools in Estonia. There is a guide for assessing manual handling of heavy objects however, it does not cover more complex cases and the document is outdated.

Why choose a high-quality risk analysis?

To begin with, one might ask why a high-quality risk analysis is needed, if the one with a poor quality is enough to tick the box? High-quality risk analysis provides practical guidance for employers on how to make the work environment safer and healthier. When the new Bill No. 21-0576, which is in the round of approval, enters into force, a good knowledge of the working environment will be central to the organization of occupational health. If the risk analysis is done unprofessionally, it will simply have to be done again – which, in turn, will mean a double cost for the company.

The amendment to the law will also bring changes in the provision of occupational health services. From now on, the occupational health care provider must always visit the work environment, analyze and give recommendations to the employer on how to make it healthier. In addition, updates are coming to the list of occupational diseases – diseases caused by psychosocial risk factors in the work environment are added.

 

A safe and ergonomic work environment helps increase employee productivity and company profitability!

 

REFERENCES

(1) The Value of Worker Well-Being. Jerome M. Adams. 2019. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0033354919878434

(2) Social effects of group migration between developing countries. 1989. E Bello Isaias. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/12315895/

(3) Understanding intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. 2021. PHIL SENNETT. https://www.rochester.edu/emerging-leaders/understanding-intrinsic-and-extrinsic-motivation/

(4) Breaking Engagement Apart: The Role of Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation in Engagement Strategies. 2017. Molly L. Delaney, Mark A. Royal. https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/industrial-and-organizational-psychology/article/breaking-engagement-apart-the-role-of-intrinsic-and-extrinsic-motivation-in-engagement-strategies/A277714CC7A3FE3E94DE80F4EEBBC2EF

(5) Risk Assessment Tool. OSHA. https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/risk-assessment-tool/view

(6) What’s the difference between qualitative and quantitative risk analysis? https://www.safran.com/blog/whats-the-difference-between-qualitative-and-quantitative-risk-analysis

(7) Qualitative and quantitative differences between common occupational health risk assessment models in typical industries. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6176034/