Interview • 04.11.2013

“Employers need to find and foster their employees’ optimum stress levels“

Iterview with Jörg Feldmann, German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA)

Jörg Feldmann: To be able to keep healthy associates in the long run,...
Jörg Feldmann: 'To be able to keep healthy associates in the long run, employers need to conduct risk assessments and provide humane working conditions.'
Source: BAuA

Safety is king. Whether it’s at the end of 2013 at the A+A Trade Fair in Düsseldorf or in August 2014 at the Arbeitsschutz Aktuell Trade Fair in Frankfurt (“Occupational Safety Today“): occupational safety is and remains an important topic. In this iXtenso interview, Jörg Feldmann, Press Relations Officer at the German Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA), talks about what is in store for occupational safety and health in the next few years.

Mr. Feldmann, the BAuA just published its current pamphlet “The Changing Work Environment“ with its focus on mental illnesses. What concerns today’s employees – what makes them ill?

In a nutshell, many employees talk about increasing demands in terms of knowledge, flexibility and workload. At the same time, we are observing an increase in work disability and early retirement due to mental disorders. In 2008, there were approximately 41 million sick days in Germany due to mental-health problems and diseases. In 2011, the number of days had increased to 59 million.

What’s more, the demographic change has also already arrived in the day-to-day business of many companies. Due to demographic aging of the workforce, there are new demands for occupational safety and health management. Because the retirement age has been increased, jobs need to be designed in an age-appropriate manner.

However, occupational accidents have decreased thanks to modern technology and improved work structuring. We have noticed that the number of accidents and commuting accidents are at a relatively low level. Even though every fifth disability is still based on musculoskeletal disorders, diseases due to mental–health problems are in fourth place. They have surpassed cardiovascular diseases as the cause of disability. This is quite a drastic increase. At the same time, in 2011, the number of early retirements due to mental-health problems ranked on top with approximately 70,000 cases.

What are the reasons for psychological stress?

Many employees are simply overloaded by time pressures and the amount of work or they have problems with the changed working conditions: constantly increasing demands, needing to be flexible, always needing to be available and the mentality that a wide variety of tasks has to be accomplished fast and at the same time. This along with increasing demands, having to constantly learn new things while facing job uncertainty can lead to stress. Company reorganizations and lack of support from superiors are yet other factors that can make people feel insecure and sick.

One retail study revealed that a permanent smile and the pressure to always be in a good mood and friendly also stress employees. In addition, statistics show that the work atmosphere in retail has become extreme. Employees need to increasingly be able to deal with unfriendly customers and verbal abuse. Thanks to increasing technolization, they also get the feeling of being constantly watched and that every mistake can be immediately discovered and criticized. Such factors can be causes for stress and illness.

Aside from mental risks, what are the physical hazards for retail employees?

Even though retail employees are sick below average, they often suffer from musculoskeletal disorders. Prolonged standing at work, one-sided strain and un-ergonomic checkout counter jobs are only some of the harmful factors.

What’s more, promotional measures are not necessarily healthy. Before a store introduces its sales strategies and lighting systems, a risk assessment must be conducted. After all, customers are only in the store for a very limited amount of time. Potential long-term damages to the store associates from fragrance testers, lighting or functional music have to be analyzed and excluded before you implement them.

What do the above-mentioned changes mean for present and future occupational safety and health?

To be able to keep healthy associates in the long run, employers need to conduct risk assessments and provide humane working conditions. People are healthier, when they are able to create and plan their work on their own to a certain degree and when they receive self-contained work. The support of supervisors and colleagues is also enormously important for the psyche. After all, people actually want to work. A meaningful and appreciated job is great for a healthy self-esteem.

Workstations continue to need to be designed ergonomically, for instance at the point of sale or by providing sit/stand stools. Protective clothing is also important in certain areas and industry sectors. Despite fewer accidents, there needs to be a sense of awareness for danger. Just because there are fewer accidents thanks to great technology doesn’t mean that safety measures should be neglected. However, employees must also utilize and embrace this support; otherwise, nobody is being protected.

A+A 2013 in Düsseldorf, Arbeitsschutz Aktuell 2014 in Frankfurt: what are the current trends in occupational safety and health?

The new trends are in ambient intelligence and assistance systems. Intelligent protective clothing is also a topic. In one project, we tested intelligent protective clothing for firefighters, which measures the blood oxygen content or heartbeat and pulse for instance. This way, the textiles can signal danger, before the person himself/herself is aware of it.

Last but not least: what assistance does the BAuA provide?

As a federal research facility, we primarily consult the Federal Ministry of Labor. In addition, the BAuA also provides different solutions and guidance. You can find assistance on our Internet webpage on a variety of topics such as risk assessment, work organization and shift schedules or workplace ergonomics.

The interview was conducted by Elisabeth Henning;

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