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Safety managers have many different workplace risks to assess and control, but they don’t always adequately identify and address psychosocial risks. These are sources of anxiety for workers that result from a multitude of factors including the ways that work is organized (e.g. length of shifts, numbers of consecutive days worked), ways that job tasks or the work environment are designed, or lack of inclusion in decision-making regarding their safety.

Here, we’ll look at how management of psychosocial risks fits into the framework of an effective safety management system, particularly as defined by ISO 45001.

Psychosocial Risks in a Safety Management System

ISO 45001 is a standard for Occupational Safety & Health (OHS) developed by the International Organization for Standardization and published in 2018. It incorporates and builds upon features of other guidelines such as the International Labour Organization’s ILO-OSH Guidelines and OHSAS 18001, the standard published by the British Standards Institute (BSI) that had most recently set the benchmark for safety management systems.

Anyone interested in improving their organization’s safety management systems should be aware of ISO 45001, even if they don’t plan to certify to it, because the standard represents global consensus of experts on best practices. It goes beyond other standards in its emphasis on employee engagement and a robust, pro-active EHS culture focused on identifying and addressing hazards, risks and opportunities. As we’ll see, addressing psychosocial risks is integral to ISO 45001, and an organization can’t effectively model their safety management system after the standard without doing so.

A partial list of sections of ISO 45001 that address management of psychosocial risks includes:

4.1 Understanding the organization and its context — This section states that employers should determine the external and internal issues that affect its ability to achieve the intended outcomes of its safety management system (e.g. reductions in numbers of occupational illnesses and injuries). Psychosocial risks can certainly be both internal and external factors, depending on their root causes.

5.4: Consultation and participation of workers — This section states that the organization must establish and maintain a process for consultation and participation of all workers at all applicable levels, and specifically notes that non-managerial employees must be included. Additional information on this section located in the annex to the ISO 45001 standard states that “consultation implies a two-way communication involving dialogue and exchanges. Consultation involves the timely provision of the information necessary for workers, and, where they exist, workers’ representatives, to give informed feedback to be considered by the organization before making a decision.” The intent here is to ensure that we’re actually involving employees at all levels in decision making when relevant and possible, rather than just making decisions without them, and telling them about it after the fact.

Failure to meaningfully involve workers in safety management not only deprives us of potentially valuable input, but also creates anxiety for them because they feel “unheard” and isolated. This often leads to a perceived a loss of psychological safety – the feeling among workers that their employer genuinely values and welcomes their input.

6.1 Actions to address risks and opportunities — Everything in safety management ultimately comes down to identification and control of risks. Failure to identify and address risks related to different employee abilities can have disastrous consequences in the event of an emergency, as we’ve discussed in a recent blog post. Psychosocial risks are a major category of workplace risks, and often go unidentified and unaddressed.

7.1 Resources — The organization needs to provide the resources necessary to establish, implement, maintain and continually improve safety management. This means it must also budget for resources needed to address psychosocial risks. The resources required will vary depending on the workplace and the nature of psychosocial risks present, and may include investment in redesign of workstations to reduce stress associated with poor ergonomics conditions, and mental health resources for the benefit of workers.

7.4 Communication — The organization must establish processes for communicating safety management information to employees. Communications relevant to reducing psychosocial risks might include clear procedures for reporting hazards and risks, and for communicating status of corrective actions taken. Communicating with all employees on an inclusive and equitable basis will also promote a sense of belonging and psychological safety, and ultimately reduce workers’ anxiety.

8.1.2 Eliminating hazards and reducing OHS risks — This is where we are going to do our best to eliminate hazards (which are sources of risk) and reduce the likelihood and severity associated with remaining risks, including sources of psychosocial risks.

Our success at reducing psychosocial hazards and risks depends on our ability to identify them in the first place. In other words, everything comes down to the recognition that our workers have different physical abilities, and making sure we’re factoring those differences into our emergency plans.

An overarching issue is that failure to adequately address psychosocial risks can itself become a source of additional psychosocial risk, because we’re adding to the employees’ perception of danger to their health and well-being, as well as their sense of anxiety from being excluded from decision-making that affects their safety.

Additionally, we should note that ISO currently has a draft standard, ISO 45003, which describes management of psychosocial risks in the workplace, and is designed to be implemented in conjunction with ISO 45001. While the final standard, expected to be published in 2021, will not be one that businesses can formally certify to, it confirms that ISO does in fact believe that organizations can and should use 45001 as a framework to address psychosocial risks. 45003 will provide valuable, specialized guidance for organizations already certified to 45001 to integrate management of psychosocial risks into their safety management systems.

Stress and Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs)

We must remember that psychosocial risks not only affect the mental health of workers, but have both direct and indirect impacts on their physical health, as well. The barrier between mental and physical health issues is, in fact, a false one.

Stress-related changes in the body, including increased muscle tension, can make workers more susceptible to MSDs. Stress may increase the tension in muscles, causing them to become fatigued, and may also intensify the perception of pain. Additionally, stress may have physiological effects such as impaired circulation and reduced supply of oxygen to tissues due to hyperventilation. Prolonged stress may even degrade tissues and limit their ability to recover.

A growing consensus among medical researchers supports these conclusions. A 2002 paper authored by researcher Ulf Lundberg from the Department of Psychology and Centre for Health Equity Studies at Stockholm University notes that mental stress “may induce muscle tension and has been proposed to contribute to the development of work-related upper extremity disorders (WRUEDs) by driving low threshold motor units into degenerative processes by overload.”

The following table summarizes various stress-related physiological changes, and the reasons why those changes increase the risk of MSDSs:

Physiological Change Reason for Increased MSD
Increased blood pressure In joints where space is at a premium (example – carpal tunnel), a consistent increase in blood pressure could lead to increased pressure in the joint specifically on tendons, ligaments, and nerves.
Increased fluid pressure When fluid pressure is increased for a prolonged period of time, increased pressure may be placed in joints, and on tendons, ligaments, and nerves.
Reduction of growth functions Reduction of the production of collagen (a growth function) means reduced ability for the body to heal or recover after performing work functions.
Decreased sensitivity to pain When pain is not sensed as clearly, workers may work beyond and above their body’s physical capacity.
Dilation of pupils Increased sensitivity to light.
Increase in muscle tension Causes increased pressure on and around joints, tendons, ligaments, nerves, and may cause excessive use of force during certain activities and movements.
Body remains at a heightened

state of sensitivity

Because of heightened sensitivity and alertness, workers may overburden their musculoskeletal system (lift more, work faster, etc.)

Of course, many jobs are designed or scheduled in a way that creates both physical and psychological stress. As we’ve recently blogged about, a Harvard metareview of 29 studies recently found that:

  • Injuries increase exponentially for every hour worked beyond 8 hours.
  • Injuries almost triple after 12 hours of work.
  • Injuries increase exponentially as the number of consecutive days worked increase

Many job tasks and workstations are not ergonomically well-designed, creating the risk for MSDs, as well as psychosocial risks. For example, workers often have little control over their work and work methods, including workplace shifts, and employers expect them to carry out repetitive tasks for long periods of time. Their job tasks may be machine or system-paced, and employer compensation systems may unfortunately incentivize workers to work too quickly or without breaks if they are based on “part rates” or “piecework.”

Actions we can take to address these kinds of issues include:

  • Reducing repetitiveness of tasks
  • Encouraging teamwork
  • Monitoring and continually assessing shiftwork and overtime work
  • Re-evaluating and look for ways to reduce compensation based on piece rate
  • Evaluating workloads and physical work demands

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI)

DEI is crucial to effective safety management, for many of the same reasons we outlined in our earlier discussion of ISO 45001. One very basic reason is that we need to have the consultation and participation of our entire workforce to create a strong safety culture that engages all workers. To get there, we need to be aware of subconscious biases that may prevent us from inviting everyone to the table.

In a previous blog post, we examined the serious consequences of not accounting for differently abled people in our emergency plans, showing that in real-life examples such as community response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, these failures resulted in significantly higher death tolls. It’s little wonder, given this kind of history, that workers with disabilities may be at greater psychosocial risks than others.

Research shows that various aspects of personal or professional identity correlate with higher levels of anxiety. People with disabilities in hazardous or low-paying jobs, particularly those in retail, are most likely to say their job has a negative impact on their stress levels (43 percent), eating habits (28 percent), sleeping patterns (27 percent) and weight (22 percent), according to a survey from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in collaboration with National Public Radio and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. A separate 2007 study published in Occupational Medicine followed workers in the UK and found higher levels of reported work-related stress among Black-Caribbean workers, with the highest levels found among Black-Caribbean women.

Integrating DEI with safety management can help reduce psychosocial risks in a number of ways. First, genuine inclusion gives employees room to be their true selves, including expression of their unique cultural identities, rather than expecting them to conform to rigid norms. Research indicates that up to 94% of racial minorities in the workplace feel pressure to downplay their differences to “fit in,” which affects their positive self-identification and contributes to higher levels of anxiety.

Inclusive and equitable workplaces lead to reductions in sources of psychosocial risks due to harassment and discrimination, and foster more pro-social behaviors like collaboration and support from coworkers. This promotes a culture of community and belonging, which also enables better sharing of information about hazards, risks and opportunities in the workplace, which drives continuous improvement and makes the workplace a safer place for everyone – where everyone truly feels safe, as well.

We need to discard the obsolete and flawed mindset that “diversity” and “inclusion” are just feel-good words devoid of relevance to the “real” business of the company, and that it’s Human Resources’ job to manage, if it’s being managed at all. DEI is more than aspirational. It is absolutely critical to effective workplace safety management and mitigation of psychosocial risks.

COVID-19 and The New Workplace

Of course, the ongoing global COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t helped any of this. Concerns about the risk of exposure to the SARS CoV-2 virus has caused significant anxiety for all of us, but especially those with existing health conditions that make them more likely to experience more severe health symptoms should they contract COVID-19. Research indicates that workers of color are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19, including in terms of severity of symptoms, which also elevates psychosocial risk for those workers. Even greater levels of anxiety result if employers are not following established federal guidelines or state requirements for protecting workers from COVID-19.

Additionally, even those employers who’ve been highly focused on reducing workplace exposure to COVID-19 may ironically experience other safety management issues because their attention has been diverted from “normal” or routine EHS tasks. For example, employers may be so preoccupied with managing employee temperature checks, physical distancing measures and disinfection schedules that they may not be devoting sufficient time to routine safety inspections, or may be falling behind on management of corrective actions. There’s already evidence that this is happening, with OSHA reporting that the number of whistleblower complaints they received during the months of February through May of this year is 30% higher than the corresponding time period in 2019, rising from approximately 3,150 complaints in 2019 to approximately 4,100 complaints in 2020.

We’ve already discussed the connection between MSD risks and psychosocial risks, but because of changes brought about by COVID-19, there may now be more MSD risks to workers than before. There are a couple of different factors that contribute to this increased risk. First, workers who work from home (WFH) or on work reduced schedules may become physically deconditioned, and no longer be able to perform job tasks that had previously been easy for them. Second, adjustments to work tasks or the work environment itself may have inadvertently created new MSD risks, and if we’re not re-assessing ergonomic behaviors and workstations as we go, we risk higher rates of musculoskeletal disorders.

And then there’s the mental health impacts. According to a recent Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) study, the prevalence of depression among U.S. adults is more than three times greater than it was before the COVID-19 pandemic. A Centers for Disease Control (CDC) study also found that levels of reported  adverse mental health conditions, substance use and thoughts of suicide by adults in the U.S. during the 2020 pandemic were significantly higher than levels reported during the same period in 2019.

For all of these reasons, employers are likely to face a wave of new safety issues because our collective attention has been so strongly focused on response to COVID-19.

Failure of employers to address workplace safety will not only create additional direct risks of occupational injuries and illnesses, but also will further erode mental health of workers, creating psychosocial risks that can adversely impact their job safety. This is especially true if the employer has failed to create an inclusive culture where all employees contribute, feel valued, and believe that their employer prioritizes their safety.

In this “new normal” we’re now in, we can’t afford to keep doing things the old ways. We need to find new ways of keeping all of our people connected, and that provide clearer visibility of the data we need to drive better decision making. Modern EHS software can help meet these challenges. e-Learning content and learning management software gives us the ability to keep our employees well-trained and highly engaged with our workplace safety management systems while letting us quickly verify workers training status. Chemical management software can help us keep our chemical inventory up to date even as new disinfecting products and other chemicals enter the workplace. Mobile app technologies allow workers to more actively participate in tasks like inspections and incident investigations, and manage corrective actions right from their tablet or smartphone. Plus, we get greater visibility and access to important EHS data to drive better decision-making processes.

All of this gives us the ability to better include our employees in our safety management system and the agility to adapt to whatever the future may hold, which will go a long way toward reducing psychosocial risks.

Let VelocityEHS Help!

Employers interested in pursuing ISO 45001 certification or simply modeling their OHS management system around the standard will have an easier time if they have the right tools in place and our cloud-based EHS management solution has the tools you need.

VelocityEHS Incident Management software makes it easy to report incidents, close calls and hazards, and our Risk Analysis software gives you versatile tools for assessing and prioritizing hazards and risks across your organization, while making risk information more accessible to your workforce.

A key aspect of an OHS management system as described by ISO 45001 is being pro-active, and making sure you’re actually doing the things your safety policies say you do. You need to do frequent inspections of your operations, as well as internal audits of your OHS management system itself. Luckily, our Audit & Inspection software makes these tasks simple and intuitive. Additionally, our Management of Change solution helps you ensure that changes to your systems and processes receive thorough risk assessment and approvals.

If you need an easy way to plan and manage your safety committee or other workplace safety team meetings, our Safety Meetings solution has you covered, as well.

Best of all, our solution is designed to work as an integrated platform, accessible from anywhere via the cloud, so you’ll have the visibility and engagement from your entire workforce that’s fundamental to ISO 45001 compliance and maintaining a high-performance OHS program.

Contact us today to learn more about how we can help you!