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Amendments to the Occupational Safety and Health Act – employers’ obligations clarified

Amendments to the Occupational Safety and Health Act are entering into force at the beginning of June, the aim of which is to prevent incapacity for work, promote coping at work and, thus, improve the opportunities for employees to extend their careers while also maintaining their work ability. Instead of introducing new occupational safety obligations for employers, the existing obligations were specified.
Seija Moilanen. Photo: Mikael Ahlfors

The amendments concern sections 8, 10, 11 ja 14 of the Occupational Safety and Health Act. They were presented in an event organised by the Centre for Occupational Safety in May. “The amendments do not only apply to ageing or elderly employees,” said Senior Specialist Jenny Rintala (Ministry of Social Affairs and Health, Department for Work and Gender Equality) when presenting the amendments.

Adjusting work to the employee’s abilities

Employees have different abilities that affect their performance at work, and these abilities can vary in different stages of their career due to ageing, for example. Therefore, generally effective occupational safety and health measures are not always sufficient to ensure the safety and health of an individual employee at work. In the future, employers must take more carefully into account that employees’ personal abilities may require individual occupational safety and health measures. Such abilities include professional competence, work experience, age, ageing, health, changes in work ability, inadequate or developing language skills and other similar aspects that are relevant to an employee’s safety and health.

In practice, employers must adjust the work and the working conditions to the employee’s abilities. As examples of this, Jenny Rintala mentioned the acquisition of aids, a quieter workspace and changes in work tasks, work arrangements and working hours. When determining the measures, employers should utilise the propositions and other expertise of occupational health care as support.

Employers’ opportunities to adjust work to employees’ abilities vary. Factors that affect employers’ opportunities to implement individual occupational safety and health measures include the nature and scope of the workplace’s activities, the number of personnel and the costs of the measures. “The measures may not pose any risks to the safety or health of other employees,” Jenny Rintala said.

Employers’ general monitoring obligation specified

In addition to the working environment, the state of the work community and the safety of the work practices, employers must constantly monitor the safety and health of employees at work. The purpose is to ensure that the need for individual occupational safety and health measures is detected in good time. With the help of monitoring, employers can also find out if an individual employee’s workload constitutes a health risk.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act does not lay down any specific procedures for organising the monitoring of the safety and health of employees. The procedures and responsibilities are often agreed upon in the early support model of the workplace. Now, at the latest, is a good time to discuss in the context of occupational safety and health cooperation how monitoring is handled at the workplace and whether the existing practices should be changed. At the same time, attention should be paid to the processing of personal data and privacy protection. Different ways of organising work, such as remote work, hybrid work, multi-location work and shift work, should also be taken into account.

It is important to keep in mind that employees continue to be obligated to inform the employer of any defects and shortcomings they have detected in their working conditions that affect their safety and health. The same applies to changes in functional capacity and problems in work ability, as these may be difficult for the employer to detect, even through regular monitoring. 

Ageing to be taken into account in the assessment of hazards

The working conditions may involve factors that are particularly important from the perspective of the ageing of employees. In the future, the assessment of hazards at work should include, as one aspect, the identification of hazard and risk factors associated with the ageing of employees. In her speech, Jenny Rintala said that factors such as long working hours, shift work, insufficient lighting, physically demanding work and competence requirements related to digitalisation that may be reflected in the strain of the work are more relevant from the perspective of older employees.

It is important to remember that the work and the working conditions still continue to be the object of the assessment of hazards at work – not the individual characteristics of any employee.  Although the amendments underline ageing, workplaces must ensure that hazard and risk factors associated with employees of different ages are identified comprehensively.

Psychosocial workload factors specified

Both physical and psychosocial workload factors must be taken into account when analysing and assessing hazards at work. Psychosocial workload factors refer to factors associated with the content of work, work arrangements and the social functioning of the work community. These include information overload, frequent interruptions, multitasking, monotonous work, difficult or emotionally charged customer interactions, excessive workload, frequent disruptions related to IT tools and problems in the interaction and cooperation of the work community. It is advisable to ensure in occupational safety and health cooperation that the workload factors have been identified sufficiently comprehensively. This requires recognising the special features of the work of employees in different task and personnel groups.

Resource factors of work also to be identified

In the justifications for the amendments, it is stated that, in practice, assessing the health risk of workload factors also requires analysing the resource factors, i.e. factors that promote the health of employees, that are present in the work or the working environment. They can protect employees from the adverse effects of workload factors. Occupational health care can assist workplaces in identifying resource factors in connection with workplace surveys, for example.

Instruction and guidance to be provided to employees

When providing instruction and guidance, employers should take into consideration not only employees’ professional competence and work experience, but also their other personal abilities, such as young age, ageing, special characteristics related to learning, language skills and the individual limitations or needs of an employee with partial work ability.

Employees who are pregnant, have recently given birth or are breastfeeding

If the work or the working conditions may cause a particular hazard to an employee who is pregnant, has recently given birth or is breastfeeding, the employer must take the necessary measures. In the justifications for the amendments, it is stated that transferring an employee to other tasks is not the employer’s only means of dealing with the factors that may cause a hazard, but the employer also has other measures at its disposal to control these hazards.

More detailed information on the amendments to the Occupational Safety and Health Act