Safety training a priority as quarter of EU work in dangerous conditions

With one-in-four employees reportedly working in a hazardous environment, there is a strong need for more frequent and more substantial safety training resources.

In brief:
  • EU workers report highly hazardous conditions despite general statistics indicating improvements 
  • Jobs reliant on manual labour are the worst for accidents and least likely to be replaced by automation 
  • Safety training is often lacking or in need of updating, according to worker responses
In detail: 

One-in-four Europeans consider their working environment hazardous despite statistics indicating that safety conditions in Europe are improving, according to a new report. 

In Cedefop’s second European skills and jobs survey (ESJS2), around a quarter of respondents reported working in a hazardous environment, which may include very high or very low temperatures, or with chemicals or physically dangerous objects. 

Agricultural and forestry labourers come out with the highest accident risk rates. 

And yet, safety conditions for workers are in fact improving across Europe.

Between 2011 and 2021, the risk of fatal accidents at work was reduced by one quarter. Still, it remained high in several sectors, typically characterised by adverse working conditions such as mining and quarrying; agriculture, forestry, and fishing; water and waste treatment; construction; and transport and storage.

These are also economic sectors where, according to the ESSJ2 data, European workers usually report higher exposure to hazardous working environments. Overall, these sectors represent 17% of total EU employment, but contribute to more than one-half of all work-related fatal accidents.

While the research was wide-ranging and captured responses from individuals who would not be exposed to health and safety risk to the same degree, those who undertake hazardous tasks are usually young males with low levels of qualifications, predominantly in jobs that require manual skills.

In seven occupations, the reported exposure to hazardous conditions is higher than 50% – they include labourers in agriculture and forestry, food preparation assistants, refuse workers, handicraft workers, machine operators, metalworkers, and construction workers.

An even wider range of occupations report above average exposure, including engineering technicians, assemblers, drivers, but also healthcare staff or personal services workers where risks increasingly involve interactions with other people.

Which workers are at high safety risk? 

Automation or more use of machinery can help to reduce risk, but this would only apply to certain jobs and tasks. For instance, “outdoor” jobs such as refuse collection, agricultural or construction occupations, or driving, involve a greater level of unpredictability and therefore harder to automate.

As such, training and skills development remains the most effective solution to accident prevention. Almost two-thirds of the survey respondents said they need to develop their skills further to a great or moderate extent to be able to do their job better, in terms of working more quickly or productively, but also increasing safety. 

Reported upskilling needs differ vastly across occupations. Generally, job content, tools and tasks of higher-skilled roles change more often than those at medium or low-skilled levels.

By comparing this information with figures on actual risk of accidents at work, it is possible to identify which occupations may be most prone to accidents, and which workers do not receive sufficient training.

This is done by combining three indices from the second European skills and jobs survey data, namely:

  • Reported exposure to hazardous work

  • Reported needs to further develop work skills so as to improve safety in one’s job, and

  • Reported lack of access to adequate training.

How training helps long-term risk reduction

Surprisingly, the jobs identified as having the highest risk of accidents are unlikely to decrease in importance in the future. In fact, Cedefop’s Skills forecast predicts employment growth for several of these roles, including food preparation helpers, assemblers, refuse workers, personal services workers or science and engineering professionals.

Jobs with higher accident risk may feel the pressure even more as they typically have lower social prestige and wages. For these reasons, these jobs may be increasingly filled by migrant workers, whose lack of language skills may amplify the risks. 

Moving forward, a focus on better tools and training will help to increase the social prestige of these jobs and to make workers more secure.

This article was written with information provided by Cedefop.

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