Module 4: How to enable safe location-independent work.

Landing the Concept
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Landing the Concept

Working virtually 100% indoors, in a seated position and usually talking on a phone, writing or typing on a computer paves the way for some of the top injuries … to develop.

(Albert Einstein College of Medicine)

Occupational health and safety is a multidisciplinary field of healthcare concerned with enabling an individual to undertake their occupation, in the way that causes least harm to their physical and psychological integrity as a person, their health and safety. Health and safety regulations at work make sure that all involved and affected stay safe and protected from anything that may cause harm. It is effectively about controlling and containing all risks to injury or health that could arise in the working environment. Employers have duties under health and safety law to assess risks in the workplace and to provide measures in order to minimise these risks and to ensure that all people that possibly can be affected are well informed and prepared to deal effectively with the risks.

 

Occupational Safety and Health are competences that are governed by national legislation, and therefore differences may exist in the precise and concrete laws and guidelines on a country by country basis. European countries follow the European directives set out as the minimum standards for safety and health in the workplace. The EU directives are implemented through the national legislation of Member States, who may adopt stricter rules to protect their workers, but their legislation must comply with the minimum standards that are described by the European Directives. As a result, national safety and health legislation varies across Europe. In many EU countries, there is strong cooperation between employer and worker organisations (e.g. unions) to ensure good occupational safety and health because this has benefits for both the employee (through sustained health, productivity and job satisfaction) and the employer (through improved productivity and quality).

Institutions of Higher and Further Education are no exception to the rule and comply to the national legislation. The goal of occupational safety and health is to foster a safe and healthy occupational environment not only for the employees but also to protect the users, visitors or clients of the work environment and the general public who may be affected by the occupational environment. This includes obviously the students and researchers, visiting as well as resident, of the HEI. 

Taking care of health and safety is not only a legal obligation but also an incentive for the work organisation: according to the ILO the economic burden of occupational-related injury and death is nearly four per cent of the global Gross Domestic Product each year. Feelings of mental or physical insecurity, stress, bullying, sexual or racial abuse and other adversities all carry an enormous human cost. 

A wide array of workplace hazards exists: 

  • Physical hazards
  • Biological hazards
  • Chemical hazards
  • Psychosocial hazards such as feelings of job insecurity, long work hours, and poor work-life balance can be part of the work within the HEI.

Consequently, occupational health and safety address a broad range of disciplines and professions including medicine, psychology, epidemiology, physiotherapy, rehabilitation, occupational therapy, occupational medicine, human factors and ergonomics, and many others. At present, information and communication technologies and cybernetics can be added as another discipline, due to the increasing importance of and exposure to digitalisation and mediatisation, both contributing to an increased risk for example for mental health issues and burn out. And besides the health issues that are related to the increased exposure to ICT and online communications, during the Covid-19 pandemic, there was a massive increase in cyber threats with an enlarged risk on work disruption. 

(Optional: if you are interested to explore this topic even more in depth, watch this video: https://youtu.be/4BNVQL5aMvA. Note: this video is 45 minutes long.)

Typically work based hazards are directly related to the workplace, but in HEI the workplace is rarely a one act play with an easily defined unity of place and time: academics, researchers, support staff and students move continuously between offices, meeting rooms, auditorium, lab and workshops on campus. Furthermore students and staff regularly leave the “safely” regulated and controlled environment of the university campus to work from home, in the public space, in the environment, in other academic and corporate environments, abroad… Working hours regularly extend beyond the 9 to 5 regime, working conditions often are unpredictable, for example during research or study activities. 

Then there are typical risks related to student life where the HEI should take its responsibility, for example in the conduct of student initiation procedures (see for example https://www.vrt.be/vrtnws/en/2021/08/05/18-members-of-student-fraternity-to-stand-trial-for-the-death-of/), or in protecting students against acts of violence on campus, which is fortunately not so much a European problem as it is on US Campuses, but where the HEI has to take its responsibilities to protect the students on their campus. 

(Optional: read this European Court of Human Rights ruling https://hudoc.echr.coe.int/eng#{%22itemid%22:[%22001-204603%22]}). 

In recent years there is an evident move towards online and place and time independent working, teaching and learning. This move has been accelerated and scaled up dramatically by the Covid-19 pandemic. This new way of working, teaching, learning has caused a number of new risks and hazards. There are of course first of all the (transient) measures related to Covid-19 which are imposed by national regulation for public safety and health, and which at least temporarily overrule the safety and health regulations from the employer. These include for example compulsory telework and flexible schedules, increased ventilation, personal protective equipment such as hand gels and face masks, physical distancing, and enhanced cleaning programs, all measures that affect the workplace independently of place and time, but that may have an impact on the co-workers or family members of the employees. To cope with this new normal, HR, psychosocial services, IT, Facilities, and Workplace Safety must work very closely together as the issues we now face impact all four of these domains. Health and safety measures that are obvious and accepted at the workplace in the premises of the HEI may need to be extended and adapted to the remote workplace for each employer. This includes for example guidelines on ergonomics, workload, hygiene and so on. 

And then there are also increasingly psychological and social hazards, some of them related to the new conditions of work during the pandemic. They can vary from worries about contracting COVID-19, sadness about the illness or death of a relative or friend, the changes in work patterns but also more generally the increased feelings of loneliness and the change of the work/life balance. Also financial or interpersonal difficulties arising from the pandemic can affect the safety feelings negatively. The typical coping mechanisms such as personal space or sharing problems with others in turn are problematic as social distancing measures may prevent. 

These entirely new conditions may require new measures from the health and safety management in the HEI, such as checking on employees to see how they are, facilitating worker interactions, and formal services for employee assistance, coaching, or occupational health. They may also require the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) management to reconsider the new hazards and risks caused by “safety breaches” from social media companies (e.g. https://www.the74million.org/article/gaggle-spy-tech-minneapolis-students-remote-learning/), the increased dependence on the same companies such as Facebook (the company) who do not prioritise safety over their commercial interests. Remind yourself how their recent hours-long outage of all three of their major services caused several issues where services depended on these. 

Furthermore, there are entirely new and largely unknown issues related to innovative technologies such as Artificial Intelligence and Nanotechnologies that are increasingly entering life on and off campus. Think of simple and already well accepted technologies for people tracing by means of face recognition. 

Optional: read the relevant part on safety and security in the European Commission’s proposal regarding new rules and actions for excellence and trust in Artificial Intelligence https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_21_1682

Take Action!

Occupational Health and Safety management requires a multidisciplinary approach in which different types of expert knowledge and competences are combined: medicine, psychology, epidemiology, physiotherapy, rehabilitation, occupational therapy, occupational medicine, human factors and ergonomics, information and communication technologies and cybernetics. It is evident that this is no task for a single person or service but that it requires a holistic approach across the HEI on as well as off campus. 

The role of the manager in this is to ensure that all aspects are accounted for and that OHS not only keeps up with the evolution of regulation and insights in OHS but also that it looks into new challenges and hazards, such as AI and nanotechnologies. In order to get a deeper understanding of the OHS management and its status in your HEI, it is necessary to be involved in the working of the OHS instruments and bodies. Given the occasionally privacy related issues, this may require clearance and confidentiality measures. 

Try to answer the following questions: spend one hour maximum per question:

For  a full picture of the health and safety statistics in your HEI and of its evolution over the last 3 to 5 years, consult the Safety and Health department in your institution, the psychomedical service or the student social service, also the delegates of the Unions in your institution can probably provide useful information on safety and health. Try to distinguish the trends and see if  there are gaps in the data or in the information. Is this information shared at the relevant management levels in your HEI? Have actions been taken based on the data? 

Are the current OHS measures in place in the institution or organisation complete and up to date? Are they addressing all parties that relate to your institution? Are they well published? Are the target users sufficiently aware of them? You can do a small sample survey to evaluate this on an anecdotal level. 

Does your HEI provide tools and guidelines for cyber safety and security not only on campus but also off campus, at home, remote? See for example https://admin.kuleuven.be/icts/english/e-mune/index for some practical guidelines and tools, or https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/51141415.pdf for a more theoretical approach. 

Write and share a blog post on your conclusions and recommendations that you can share with the public, please take care not to share information that may be considered potentially sensitive in your institution.

Test Yourself

References

The starting page for a global view on Occupational Safety and Health with tons of useful information, facts and figures, guidelines and tools. http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/safety-and-health-at-work/lang--en/index.htm

https://www.sans.org/security-awareness-training/sans-security-awareness-work-home-deployment-kit/ and https://www.sans.org/security-awareness-training/work-home-guide/

SANS Security Awareness Work-from-Home Deployment Kit

Everything you need to help employees create a secure work-from-home environment in the new remote work world. Learn what’s needed to quickly execute a security awareness initiative for your remote workforce as well as access supplemental training material

https://youtu.be/4BNVQL5aMvA

The Work From Home Deployment Kit is a step-by-step strategic guide on how organizations can secure their workforce. Not only does it include strategic objectives and communication templates, but also the training resources to educate and enable their workforce.

A basic but comprehensive example of a guide to cybersecurity. https://www.zdnet.com/article/internet-safety-guide-for-college-students/

This paper points out the importance of cyber security awareness and protection. It touches on the major ideas of why the academic community is currently in a predicament. The paper proposes solutions on what can be done to address cyber security challenges in higher education. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/51141415.pdf

An example of an institution-wide campaign for digital security.  Cybers https://admin.kuleuven.be/icts/english/e-mune/index

https://copyrightexceptions.eu/

Image sources

librutech.com, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons