Fact book on working environments and health 2018

Fact book (nor: Faktaboka) on working environments and health uses national data sources to provide an overview of the current situation and latest developments with respect to working environments. Working environments revolve around the work that is done there, and in many cases work promotes good health. Most Norwegian employees consider their own working environment and health to be good, and when compared with the rest of Europe, Norwegian workers express a very high level of satisfaction with the conditions at their workplace. Nevertheless, there are still some industries and occupations in Norway with challenging working environments, so there is an ongoing need to implement informed preventive safety measures and to adapt work to the needs of individuals. 

Publikasjoner

STAMI, NOA. Faktabok om arbeidsmiljø og helse 2018, status og utviklingstrekk. STAMI-rapport, Årg. 19, nr 3, Oslo: STAMI, 2018.

Norway has one of the highest employment rates in Europe, and it is particularly high amongst women and older people. Norwegian workers are required to be highly flexible and to meet high expectations, but most people also feel that they have a high degree of control over their own work. The importance of skills is only likely to increase in the future, due to internationalisation, technological developments and automation. At the same time, we expect skills requirements to change more often and faster, which will make tomorrow’s workplaces even more demanding in terms of personal qualities and social skills like the ability and willingness to learn, collaborate and change.

The average time we spend at work, and the prevalence of night shifts and long working weeks, has remained reasonably stable for the past fifteen years. The growth of the service sector has increased the number of jobs in occupations focused on customer, user and patient relations, which creates challenges in terms of emotional demands, conflicting duties and, in certain occupations, violence and threats. Nevertheless, workers in many occupations are still exposed to traditional hazards of a physical, chemical or mechanical nature, in spite of the number of industrial jobs falling by almost a third since the 1970s. In absolute numbers, there are now more people working in the secondary sector than in the 1970s, which is largely due to a big increase in the construction industry.

The number of workers reporting skin contact with various chemicals and exposure to physical factors such as noise and vibrations in their working environments is roughly unchanged from 15-20 years ago. The number of reports of inhalation of particles and substances like various types of dust, smoke, gases and steam has fallen since the early 2000s, but the trend appears to have levelled off in recent years. The situation is similar for most factors relating to work positions and operations that cause mechanical stress.

The biggest health issues for Norwegian workers, both in terms of prevalence and cost measured in worse health, sickness absence and disability, are musculoskeletal disorders and minor mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. The prevalence of musculoskeletal disorders was roughly the same in 2016 as twenty years ago. The prevalence of mental health disorders has risen slightly since 2009, but is at the same level as in 2003. In recent years, mental health disorders have become an increasingly frequent cause of both sickness absence and disability benefit claims.

The number of workers reporting skin problems is roughly the same today as it was twenty years ago. However, there has been a moderate reduction in the proportion attributing their problems to exposure at work. Occupational respiratory diseases are also less prevalent than twenty years ago. Nevertheless, respiratory symptoms are the most common complaint investigated by occupational health clinics in Norway. The number reporting hearing loss has not fallen since 2006, and noise injury is still the occupational disease that is most frequently reported to the Norwegian Labour Inspection Authority and Petroleum Safety Authority Norway.  

Occupational injuries are thought to represent approximately 12 percent of all injuries in Norway, and young men face a particularly high risk of injury. Over the long term, the number of occupational deaths has fallen significantly. This decline has continued in recent years, after a few years at the start of the 21st century when the number appeared to level off. However, this positive trend has not been observed amongst foreign workers. In general, sickness absence has been falling since 2003, but the level appears to have stabilised in recent years. Musculoskeletal disorders and mental health diagnoses represent almost 60 percent of cases that exceed the employer’s sixteen-day period of responsibility. Over the past ten years, the number of people back in work one year after a long-term absence has risen sharply. The number of new recipients of disability benefits has remained relatively stable over the past ten years. However, there has been a reduction for over -55s and an increase for under -55s.

Potential to improve preventive safety at Norwegian workplaces
Designing effective preventive safety measures requires knowledge of the particular challenges in terms of working environments and occupational health in specific occupations, industries and sectors. Some kinds of workplace exposures are closely linked to your occupation or to the tasks you perform. This is particularly true of chemical, physical and mechanical exposures in the working environment. For organisational and psychosocial factors in the working environment, there is not such a clear link to your occupation. Consequently, these factors vary from workplace to workplace, which requires a different approach to preventive action. The Working Environment Act sets out basic preventive safety requirements and means that all companies must work systematically to ensure that their working environments cause no physical or psychological harm.

National and international research shows that a range of psychosocial factors in the working environment increase the risk of developing mental health disorders, while a range of psychosocial and mechanical factors increase the risk of developing musculoskeletal disorders. Research based on monitoring data shows that there is still significant potential to improve preventive safety measures in Norway. A quarter of all cases of mental health disorders, a quarter of all cases of moderate to serious neck and shoulder pain, and a third of all cases of moderate to serious lower back pain could have been avoided by eliminating known risk factors in the working environment.

Almost 500,000 people have an occupation that exposes them to three or more risk factors that significantly affect mental health. Employees in the health and social care sector report being more exposed to these risk factors than other workers. In total around one in four Norwegian workers has an occupation that is exposed to three or more mechanical and psychosocial factors that increase the risk of musculoskeletal disorders. Employees in the health and social care sector, service industries, construction industry, industrial sector and primary sector have the highest levels of exposure.

Chemical, biological and physical workplace exposures are associated with a higher prevalence of skin disorders, and a study based on our monitoring data estimated that around sixteen percent of Norwegian workers’ skin problems are attributable to exposures at work. In total around one in five Norwegian workers, which is equivalent to almost 500,000 people, have an occupation that exposes them to several skin irritants. Employees in the health and social care sector and in some parts of the industrial sector and service industries have the highest levels of exposure.

Respiratory problems are associated with workplace exposure to mineral dust, metal dust and organic dust, and a study based on our monitoring data indicates that around one in five cases of respiratory disorders in the last month were attributable to these exposures. In total around one in five Norwegian workers, or 490,000 people, have an occupation that exposes them to several of these risk factors. Workplace exposure to several risk factors is particularly prevalent in the  construction industry, primary sector and amongst cleaners and chefs/kitchen assistants.

Sickness absence is associated with exposure to mechanical stress and organisational or psychosocial factors at the workplace. Studies based on our monitoring data indicate that these kinds of exposures are responsible for 25 and 15 percent respectively of sickness absence over the course of a year. In terms of exposures, many employees in the health and social care sector face a number of psychosocial and organisational challenges at their workplaces, and these groups therefore have a high sickness absence rate. Exposure to mechanical stress is widespread in manual jobs, the health and social care sector and service industries like cleaning and hairdressing.

Occupational injuries are usually the result of complex interactions between a large number of factors operating at different levels. Causes are often split into triggers and underlying causes. Factors, meanwhile, can be classified as human, technological or organisational. The biggest improvement in safety can be achieved by implementing technical and organisational safety measures. Research tells us that the risk of occupational injuries is higher for night shifts and long working days (working more than 8 hours). Various factors relating to the psychosocial working environment may also have an impact on the risk of occupational injuries. The most important ones are emotional demands, conflicting duties and high expectations combined with poor controls. Other known factors that are associated with safety at work include the worker’s own perception of risk, consequences of human error, working alone and a lack of training. Large occupational groups are exposed to working environments associated with a higher risk of injury in their day-to-day work.