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Interdependencies and Evaluation in Occupational Safety

Developing a comprehensive understanding of the success factors of occupational safety and health

Through research, development and policy advice, the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA) wants to contribute to the effectiveness of occupational safety and health and to support its conceptual development.

The BAuA's impact research in the field of occupational safety and health is particularly focused on the analysis of changes in the effectiveness of occupational safety and health structures and the impact of prevention practices.

Changes in the effectiveness of occupational safety structures

The change in the working world entails new demands and stresses for employees. This also leads to a change in the framework conditions for the existing structures and instruments of inner-company and supra-company occupational safety.

Companies have a wide range of support available for the implementation of legal requirements. Nevertheless, only a limited number of companies have integrated the corresponding measures - for example, the ongoing process of risk assessment - into their operational organisation.

Impacts on prevention practice

In view of these discrepancies, the BAuA examines relevant factors influencing the implementation and design of occupational safety measures. The point of departure of the thinking process is that instruments of occupational safety and health are designed differently in dynamic social contexts. A large number of factors have an impact on the safety and health of employees. In addition to structural characteristics and aspects of the workflow, these influencing variables also include the orientations of action, motives and attitudes of the actors. Accordingly, it is necessary to involve relevant target groups within companies in the implementation of occupational safety and health measures.

Occupational safety and health measures can alter technology, organisation and work processes as well as behaviour and attitudes of employees and executives. Technology, organisation and work processes vary according to industry and size, while the attitudes of the management and the workforce are simultaneously shaped by the existing prevention culture and are an expression of this prevention culture. Thus, a wide range of factors determine the design of occupational safety.

Evaluation of promotion and inhibition factors

In company organisations, one is required to deal with complex impact chains, with a beneficial or inhibiting effect on occupational safety practices at different points. The evaluation report commissioned by the BAuA, titled "Occupational safety and health promotion - comparative analysis of predictors and moderators of good practice" provides interesting suggestions for the examination of chains of effect. The data basis for the systematic evaluation of the literature was provided by reviews and meta-analyses of 185 intervention studies in occupational safety and occupational health promotion, published since 2005. In these studies, there was a high degree of consistency in both enabling and inhibiting impact variables of occupational safety and health promotion. However, the precise nature of this impact as well as the interactions between the influencing variables have not been investigated sufficiently thus far.

Impact process in an operational context

Complex interventions in companies or organisations are, as a matter of principle, influenced at nine points by moderating variables according to the evaluation report (see illustration for the impact model). These nine process steps are the basis for an iterative cause-and-effect process between interventions, mediate outcomes and impacts. In the report, the impact chain is supplemented by a phase of stabilisation of the new status quo after implementation in the company. The new status quo is reflected, among other things, in characteristics of the social context, such as the health and safety climate, or the knowledge and attitude of the employees. These "soft factors", in turn, influence relevant key indicators at company level, such as accident rates, sick leave and indicators of employees' well-being.

Impact model based on Robson et al. Image from Elke et al. 2015: Arbeitsschutz und betriebliche Gesundheitsförderung - vergleichende Analyse der Prädiktoren und Moderatoren guter Praxis, © BAuA

Evaluation and exploratory impact research

As shown above, one can distinguish between exploratory and hypothesis-testing impact research for the purpose of examining one or more impact chains. In the hypothesis-testing impact research, the impact of interventions on a specific variable is considered which has already been selected beforehand due to certain assumptions about the impact. For this kind of impact research, we use the term “evaluation”.

In exploratory impact research, however, the causal relations of interventions are examined. The aim of this kind of research is to formulate new hypotheses and to identify the relevant variables to verify the hypotheses.

Methodological approaches

Following these explanations, it should be clear that the efficacy of occupational safety and health measures are to be investigated with special attention to their unique context. The concept of evidence used by the Federal Institute provides an orientation framework for investigating the impact chains of complex interventions in their context (see illustration "Extended Evidence Prism"). In general, the term "evidence" is to be considered the highest certainty of an issue.

Extended Evidence Prism Image based on Elkeles / Broesskamp-Stone 2010: Evidenzbasierte Gesundheitsförderung. In: Bundeszentrale für gesundheitliche Aufklärung (Hrsg.): Leitbegriffe der Gesundheitsförderung. Köln

Although the evidence of causality principally requires a control group with nearly identical attributed which is affected by the intervention neither before nor after. Since the formation of control groups is often difficult or impossible for ethical reasons, sophisticated statistical methods can provide an alternative. However, in impact research and evaluation, these quantitative methods generally do not allow conclusions about the interdependencies that are hidden behind the cause-impact relation.

Often, only qualitative methods, such as guided interviews can unveil possible interdependencies, if they are analysed by the means of content analysis or reconstructive methods. Qualitative methods also help to develop an understanding of the reasons for the effectiveness of a measure on one or more dependent variables. The analysis of complex interdependencies by using qualitative methods is also useful for the purpose of theory building. Qualitative methods are therefore well suited for explorative impact research. Exploratory impact research is especially used if the interdependencies of an intervention or the relevant influencing factors of the empirical prevention practices of companies are initially unclear.

Hypotheses about the inhibiting and enabling factors influencing an effective occupational safety and health practice can then be developed, based on the results of exploratory research. If necessary, these newly discovered theoretical assumptions can be validated quantitatively within the framework of mixed-method designs.