Risky business!

Risky business!

The times they are a-changin’. Bob Dylan released this song in 1964. Well, the phrase seems especially apt in the SHEQ world today …

I recently read a fascinating article entitled: “Monitoring new and emerging risks”, which highlighted a bundle of new risks that, of course, need to be properly managed. These risks have emerged because the world is changing. We are up against things such as globalisation, innovation and an ageing workforce.

As such, this article points out that we have new and emerging risks; which can be broken down into three main categories: physical risks and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), psychosocial risks, and risks related to dangerous substances.

Let’s start with physical risks and MSDs. One of the key physical risks identified in the article is inactivity. This can have dire consequences; the World Health Organisation has estimated that, globally, 1,9-million people die a premature death each year because of an inactive lifestyle.

Funnily enough, this problem is partially a consequence of productivity measures _ the emphasis on lean production leads to less walking (for instance, to fetch supplies). The growing use of computers and automated systems appears to cause an increase in sedentary work or prolonged standing at work, which results in an increase in physical inactivity.

Work commitments and other time demands are also commonly cited as reasons for physical inactivity, as are an increase in travelling time to work and having an inactive leisure time.

Physical inactivity is associated with increased health risks such as obesity, coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, certain types of cancers and psychological disorders (depression and anxiety).

Meanwhile, psychosocial risks are fast becoming another cause for concern in modern workplaces. Chief among them are job insecurity, work intensification, violence and harassment and poor work-life balance.

For me, the insecurity aspect is especially interesting. According to this article, so-called “temporary contracts” have grown in popularity in the past two decades. Examples include temporary agency work, short-term contracts, part-time work, home-based work, on-call work, and day-hire work.

Some people _ such as those who work from home, and have autonomy, flexibility and the freedom to choose their own pace of work _ like the idea. Generally speaking, however, workers prefer full-time employment; they experience increased levels of angst in the case of “temporary contracts”. That’s quite understandable _ workers under these types of flexible employment contracts are sometimes more vulnerable than full-time staff members.

They may, for instance, carry out hazardous jobs with increased exposure to more dangerous substances in poorer conditions, and often receive less occupational safety and health (OSH) training.

Plus, they suffer from job insecurity which, according to the article, can result in reduced well-being (psychological distress, anxiety, depression, and burnout), reduced job satisfaction (withdrawal from the job and the organisation) and increased psychosomatic complaints, as well as physical strains.

The third major risk _ of dangerous substances _ is also fascinating. According to the article, we need to consider substances such as engineered nanomaterials, new fibres and biological pathogens. The big problem is that the human risks associated with exposure to these substances are still largely unknown.

The nanomaterials are particularly worrying, because this market is increasingly so rapidly; the article states that the market was worth many, many billions of US dollars last year (it’s predicted to double this year).

Why? Well, according to the writers, engineered nanomaterials (ENMs) have unique properties that improve the performance of many products. This is thanks to their small size, apparently. They can also be used in many different industries.

A key concern with ENMs, however, is that we don’t know the effect that they will have on workers. Some research has been done, but it’s going to take many years to gather and analyse all the data required to perform a comprehensive risk assessment.

Thankfully, the article concludes by explaining that emerging risks in workplaces can be identified, evaluated and ranked. Significantly, it also concludes that new and emerging risks can be complex, but management of them is possible. Yay!

• The article to which I refer was collectively written by Irene Houtman, Marjolein Douwes, Esther Zondervan, and Mat Jongen from a research organisation called TNO in the Netherlands. Check it out on our website:

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