Changing workplace raises safety and health questions

July 12, 2005
By: Vicki Bell

The current economy has altered the organization of work. This article discusses the changes and their impact on the work force in terms of job safety and health.

Editor's Note: Much of the content for this article was taken from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) publication "The Changing Organization of Work and the Safety and Health of Working People: Knowledge Gaps and Research Directions."

The organization of work—how work processes are structured and managed—has changed significantly over the past few years. These changes affect work-life quality and job safety and health.

To compete more effectively, many companies have restructured and downsized their work forces. They now rely increasingly on nontraditional employment practices and depend on temporary workers and contractor-supplied labor. They also have adopted more flexible and lean production technologies.

In 2002 the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)—acknowledging that changes in the organization of work have far outpaced the knowledge about the implications for the work-life quality and for safety and health on the job—initiated a research agenda for investigating and reducing risks associated with these changes.

The research is intended to improve surveillance mechanisms to track better how the organization of work is changing; accelerate research on safety and health implications; increase research focus on organizational interventions to protect safety and health; and formalize and nurture work organization as a distinctive field in occupational safety and health.

The Effects

When faced with restructuring and downsizing, employees worry about job stability. At the same time their work loads can increase. Worrying more, plus working harder and longer, produces stress, which has physical, mental, emotional, and relationship consequences.

More employees are working from home, a practice that can reduce stress and injury by harmonizing work and family demands and eliminating daily commutes. However, employees who work from home don't have the safety oversight available to on-site workers. The home may become subject to occupational hazards. Work and family life can become blurred, and workers can feel isolated, yet constantly tethered to the workplace.

Using temporary workers, particularly short-term, can create potentially serious problems. Employers may be tempted to take shortcuts on safety training. Doing so can result in injuries and fatalities and potential Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fines.

Employers need to recognize the changes in work organization and structure their health and safety programs to accommodate these changes.

Research Questions

NIOSH seeks to gain a better understanding of how occupational health services and programs, including worker safety training and access to these services and programs, are affected by organizational restructuring and downsizing. Preliminary findings show that employee assistance program usage may drop significantly when these programs are outsourced to off-site vendors. More research is necessary to assess better how losing health benefits affects the substantial percentage of displaced workers who become reemployed but experience health insurance loss and wage reductions.

Few temporary workers receive company-provided health benefits, and access to occupational health services and programs among these workers has not been studied. Additionally, research should examine the safety and health implications of the emerging trend toward defined contribution and self-managed health benefit programs that may limit health services available to traditional work force members.

Among the relevant research questions are:

  1. Are downsizing and employment volatility creating safety and health risks by depleting institutional knowledge of safety and health practices through loss of experienced workers and managers—or, correspondingly, is high labor turnover interfering with workers' ability to acquire safety skills and knowledge?
  2. To what extent is job combination, even among seasoned workers, adding tasks for which workers lack safety knowledge?
  3. To what extent do temporary workers face increased risk of illness and injury from inexperience or insufficient safety training owing to variable and short-tenure job placement?

Telecommuter Issues

Besides examining safety issues, NIOSH also is looking closely at the effects of telecommuting and other organizational practices that meld work and family life, considering both the benefits presumed to result from increased flexibility and control over family obligations and risks from insufficient separation of work and family. Specific attention is being given to the risk of stress and family dysfunction from work demands spilling over into the family environment for telecommuters and home workers, and to technologies and organizational policies that promote or discourage work intruding into personal spaces.

While work-life programs and family-friendly policies to reduce work-life conflict have spread rapidly throughout industry, empirical study of their health-related effects has been sparse. Research is needed to investigate the effects these programs have on preventing work-family conflict and stress.

Research also is needed on the potential stresses among home workers and telecommuters created by nonstandard work schedules; role conflicts; and the possible loss of identity, security, status, and support from peers and supervisors that may result from not participating in the organization's social environment.

A Closer Look at Certain Groups

According to NIOSH, research needs to examine much more vigorously the effects of organizational stressors, such as harassment and job discrimination, that are highly specific to women and ethnic and racial minorities. Studies also are needed to understand better how employment arrangements more common among women and certain minority groups in today's economy—service work, temporary employment, home work—may disproportionately expose them to occupational risks, such as reduced health benefits and job insecurity. Also to be considered are the possible protective effects these employment arrangements can derive from increased access to employment and flexibility needed to balance work-life demands.

Receiving a closer look also are older workers—whether the adjustments, learning demands, and work load pressures created by new work systems and rapid technological advances place them at higher risk of stress, illness, and injury. Other factors that impact older workers are unavailable light-duty work and increased probability of displacement.

Individual Company Research

Since NIOSH set forth its objectives in 2002 to learn more about the changing organization of work and the implications for work-life quality and job safety and health, these changes have accelerated. Many more workers have lost their jobs, and many have assumed much heavier work loads. Companies need to conduct their own research and acquire the knowledge they need to ensure a safe, healthy work environment for all workers.

Employers need to be aware of work organization changes and the possible effects. Has the organization downsized? Have work loads increased? Are employees working longer hours? Is the company using temporary workers? Are telecommuters receiving the peer and supervisor support they need? Are there unique problems for women, racial and ethnic groups, and older workers?

Observation and communication are great research tools. Look for existing and potential problems. Talk with workers about these issues, and brainstorm ideas for addressing any that come to light. Be proactive in recognizing and managing change, focusing always on providing the safest, healthiest, and best work-life balanced-environment.

Vicki Bell

Vicki Bell

FMA Communications Inc.
2135 Point Blvd
Elgin, IL 60123
Phone: 815-227-8209