Occupational Safety & Health (OSH) in Europe: Challenges and Opportunities 

Occupational Health

An interview with one of Europe’s most respected occupational health professionals, Dr. Steffen Hitzeroth. 

“Good OSH is good for business.” 

That’s from the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), the continent’s top resource for information on occupational safety and health. To put it another way, the agency notes, neglecting OSH will cost people and companies money. Early retirements, high insurance premiums, the loss of skilled staff due to injuries and disease—they’re all part of the ‘risk mix’ in European countries where access to occupational health services is lacking. 

Wanting to better understand and share the European perspective on OSH, the Cority team recently reached out to Dr. Steffen Hitzeroth, chairman and CEO at GLO-TH Consulting to discuss. Highly respected for his expertise as an occupational health professional in the EU, Hitzeroth helps companies develop health management programs that are optimized for the countries in which they operate. From his office in Waldems, Germany, where he coordinates a consulting network of occupational health clinicians, he answered our questions covering everything from the OSH challenges companies face today to the role of technology in OSH program management. 

This conversation has been edited for clarity. 

Q: You previously worked as a doctor in internal medicine and other medical disciplines. How did you go from being a physician to your current work as an occupational health specialist? 

A: I got to the point where I was asking myself, “Why am I always treating patients when they are sick?”. I realized I could provide a higher-value service if I focused on prevention in the workplace and doing things to keep people healthy. 

Q: As organizations look to ramp up their occupational health programs, what are some of the hurdles that stand in their way when it comes to preventing workplace injuries and illnesses? 

A: A common issue I see facing many companies is that leadership doesn’t have a clear picture of the health risk workers face.  And that’s partly because they are principally hearing about health risks from managers, not from the people on the factory floor.  The next major challenge is that to create an effective occupational health program, you have to think equally about health and safety.  The two have to work hand-in-hand.  Prevention plays a part in better health.  If you make sure that your people are in good shape mentally and physically, that’s going to make your business better.  

Q: Risk prevention can come across as a dry topic. How can companies make it more interesting so there’s better buy-in from employees? 

A: Firstly, companies should think about how they can make their risk prevention activities more engaging to workers.  Maybe create a competition around which team or department can identify and correct the most  workplace risks.  Secondly, managers need to model the behavior they want to see from staff, and actively participate in those activities to show their commitment to these OSH goals.  Everyone should understand why it’s important and that the success of the enterprise depends on each individual’s success at managing risk  

Q: How is occupational health changing in Europe? Are there any OH issues you see coming to the forefront? 

A: Occupational health in Europe is very diverse, and it’s going to take a long time before every EU country is at the same level. There has been some movement toward developing a kind of European-wide template for risk assessment and mitigation, but with the war in Ukraine and the financial situation what it is, that’s been pushed to the back for now. 

Q: The EU Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work 2021-2027 notes that digital technologies can provide workers with  solutions to support their health and well-being. From your point of view, what role can technology play in helping organizations manage their health programs? 

A: Digitization is important because it allows you to collect data, whether it’s noise data, chemical data, or safety data. At the end of the day, you need data if you want to know exactly where someone has worked, for how many years, and which health problems they may be experiencing that are related to that work. Digitization also makes it possible to analyze data and identify trends. And, it’s important to select the right interventions to support worker’s health goals – from  health risk assessments and health promotion activities  – as well as measuring how successful those interventions are. 

Finally, the other part of digitization is telehealth. There aren’t a lot of occupational health professionals in Europe, so it helps when workers are  able to get support virtually when it’s needed. I think occupational health via telehealth will become more and more popular in the future. Companies will realize they can save time and money by enabling the occupational health professionals to assess patients virtually, or even allowing them to observe the workplace via video link that would given them a better idea of hazards, workplace exposures, and perhaps necessary controls or treatments required, all without having to be physically on site.

Q: You noted that telehealth will likely gain acceptance over time. What barriers do occupational health practitioners need to overcome to convince organizations to go the telehealth route? 

A: I think the main concern is the safety of the data. Workers are very much worried that their employers, or their managers, could misuse their personal data. The other side is employee training. They need to understand how telehealth works, how they can make use of it, and how they can develop a relationship with their doctor or nurse even though they’re not face to face. 

Q: Do you perceive any challenges in delivering of telehealth services across a region as large and diverse as the EU, where each country may have specific regulations around occupational health and/or data privacy?  

A: The biggest problem is language, but there also may be cultural differences that make it difficult to understand people’s perspectives. If you’re a worker and you think the specialist doesn’t really fully understand your problem, that’s not helpful. 

Q: Works Councils, a common element of European workplace whose members advocate for employee interests,  often appear resistant to  technology adoption. What can companies and occupational health professionals do to convince these councils that health program digitization is important and in the best interest of the greater workforce? 

A: Works Councils have an important role to play in looking after the physical and mental health of employees. My experience is, if you sit down with them and explain exactly why you want to implement occupational health software in the business, and inform them what the pros and cons of health technology are, they will often agree that implementation of the solution makes sense.  

However, there are some unique barriers. Regulations is definitely one. Another is language – workers using telehealth want to be sure that they are speaking with a health professional they understand, and who understands them.  That can be a big problem.  But there are also cultural differences across Europe that can make it difficult for both health experts and workers to understand the other person’s perspective.  If you’re a worker, and you think the health specialist doesn’t fully understand your problem, that’s not helpful and will impact the willingness of workers to use telehealth services.  

Q: How do you see the role of occupational health evolving when it comes to a company’s ESG and sustainability programs? 

A: I think it’s becoming more and more important for companies to demonstrate with data what they’re doing for the health of their employees. People want to work for companies that are concerned about sustainability.  Ensuring your business has safe workplace conditions, and that the company is actively investing in programs that advance the health & wellbeing of their people will serve as evidence that the business is truly sustainable.  

Cority has been developing software solutions for occupational healthcare professionals for over three decades, leveraging the experience of its employees that come from industry and maintain their designation in their areas of expertise. Independent research firm, Verdantix, recently recognized Cority in its 2023 Green Quadrant for EHS Software as the “highest among the vendors assessed” for its functional strength and historical reputation in occupational health and industrial hygiene. It was the fifth consecutive time Cority has received designation as a leader in this benchmark study. Want to learn more about how you can improve your occupational health programs? Check out our webinar, Clearing the air: Leverage occupational hygiene best practices to reduce the risk of respiratory illness.