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Workplace Risk Assessment

Considering psychosocial risks appropriately

Unfavourable psychosocial working conditions, such as high levels of time pressure or long working hours, affect employees across all sectors and in organisations of all sizes. Organisations are called upon to proactively reduce such risks. Workplace risk assessment helps them to do this.

What is workplace risk assessment?

Work is to be designed in such a way that any risk to employees' safety and health is avoided as far as possible (Section 4 Safety and Health at Work Act (Arbeitsschutzgesetz, ArbSchG)). Workplace risk assessment is the process used to identify the measures required for workers' safety and health at work, implement them and review them to verify they are effective.
Psychosocial risks are to be taken into consideration just as much as hazards related to the physical work environment and physical workload . This was clarified by an amendment of the Safety and Health at Work Act in 2013 (Section 5 ArbSchG).

Why do psychosocial factors have to be considered?

Depending on their type, intensity and duration, mental workload can affect health and contribute to the development of physical and/or mental illness. Psychosocial risks for workers' health may arise, for example, from a high amount of work and high levels of time pressure, excessive working times, lack of control or lack of social support. It is therefore necessary to identify such risks and reduce them as far as possible.

In addition, unfavourable psychosocial working conditions can increase the risks involved in handling biological agents, hazardous substances or other dangerous technical equipment. For example, higher risks are to be assumed if employees have to work under time pressure or are frequently interrupted and disturbed during their work with hazardous substances. For this reason, the Ordinance on Biological Substances (Biostoffverordnung, BioStoffV) stipulates that "stress and exposure situations, including psychological stress" must also be taken into account in the risk assessment of activities involving the handling of biological agents (Section 4 BioStoffV).

What concrete action needs to be taken?

The essential tasks, stages and requirements are described in the "Recommendations for implementing psychosocial risk assessment" that were drawn up together by the German Federation, Germany's federal states, the statutory accident insurance providers, the trade unions and employers' associations in the context of the Joint German Occupational Safety and Health Strategy (Gemeinsame Deutsche Arbeitsschutzstrategie, GDA). Furthermore, requirements are also specified in the technical rules on the risk assessment of workplaces (ASR V3), operational safety (TRBS 1111) and working with biological agents (TRBA 400).

The following issues have to be considered: (1) the content of work, (2) how work is organised, including working time patterns, (3) social relationships in the workplace and (4) the working environment. Significant stress factors are set out by the "Content of risk assessment" checklist included in the GDA-Recommendations. Irrespective of the sector or profession, the level of work intensity, decision latitude/control, working time patterns, social relationships, in particular with superiors, and the work environment, in particular the loads from noise, are to be considered. In addition, further loads are to be given consideration as necessary when they are specific to the task in question. For example, risks caused by emotional demands and traumatic events would inevitably need to be taken into account when assessing the risk of work done by police officers, emergency services personnel and nursing staff.

Workplace risk assessment is intended to determine which occupational safety and health measures have to be taken in order to reduce risks for employees as far as possible. The state of the art, occupational medicine, hygiene and well-founded ergonomic evidence are to be considered when this is done. Risk assessment has to be carried out specifically for each activity, and must be objectively justified and verifiable.

What is important for successful implementation?

Psychosocial risks are a comparatively recent area of concern for occupational safety and health. The following lessons have been learned from practical experience:

  • Dialogue and communication-oriented procedures are needed, as are steps to strengthen employees and managers' position as the primary actors who shape the working environment.
  • Risk assessment should be focussed on what is already being done in the organisation, and what action needs to be taken in future, to prevent employees from being exposed to critical loads as far as possible.
  • Measures are necessary and possible in very different areas in the company, in working time and performance policy as well as in personnel planning or qualification. In the interests of safety and health at work, efforts to prevent risks in all these areas should be encouraged.

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