"Sometimes, people don't realize that it's their job that's making them sick"
Jaume de Montserrat
Teresa Bau

Jaume de Montserrat, the Catalan Deputy Director General for Occupational Health and Safety, participated in the 5th Academic Conference for the presentation and recognition of the best final projects for the Master's Programme in Health and Safety. In an interview, de Montserrat discussed the priorities for the 2014-2020 Occupational Health Strategy, currently being developed by the Catalan government in conjunction with the various social stakeholders, as well as the growing importance of work-related mental health disorders, which require better identification and prevention.

What are the main risks for Catalan workers?

The classic risks are still the most common. For example, there is exposure to repetitive movements and unnatural positions, as might be found with a supermarket cashier who is constantly turning her upper body to swipe new items. There is also exposure to noise and chemicals, including carcinogens. Technological developments in manufacturing have helped to reduce these classic risks somewhat. There are also psycho-social risk factors, related to how work is organized.

What is the accident rate and how has it been affected by the crisis?

The accident rate refers to workplace accidents, although it can also include work-related illnesses, which are harder to calculate. For the last 8 or 9 years, the rate has been falling. We have gone from nearly 5,000 accidents per 100,000 workers a year to 2,900. However, those figures are relative, as fewer people are working now due to the crisis. Nevertheless, it is a positive trend and one we will want to make sure continues.

What are the reasons for this decline?

There are probably many reasons, although we don't understand them well. The tools we have to analyse them are not as perfect as we would like. Probably, regulations and companies' preventive actions have had an effect. At the same time, the crisis has not destroyed all jobs equally, that is, many more jobs have been lost in construction and manufacturing, where the risk of accidents is higher. Technological and process improvements in certain high-risk jobs may also have played a part. Finally, in recent years, because of the crisis, people may not be working as intensely, which leads to fewer accidents.

What are the priorities of the Catalan Office of Occupational Health and Safety?

We think it is very important for business owners and workers to participate in the development of our policies. In the framework of the Catalan Labour Relations Council, a body for social dialogue in Catalonia, we are working on a Catalan Occupational Health and Safety Strategy, which will lay out our main commitments in terms of occupational health and safety until 2020. We expect to finish it by the end of the year. The main areas are:

  • Promote greater engagement among small and medium-sized enterprises. SMEs employ the most people, but their size makes it difficult for them to manage occupational risks. Strategies must be sought to convince them to engage, and they must be given the tools they need to facilitate regulatory compliance.

  • Enhance information systems on occupational accidents and, above all, occupational illnesses. Unlike accidents that happen in the workplace, these other illnesses are not so easy to identify. For example, a worker might have problems sleeping due to stress at work, yet it may not be identified as an occupational illness. Sometimes, neither the workers themselves, nor their physicians, know that it is an occupational illness. We need to improve the detection of work-related illnesses, including mental health disorders; otherwise, we will end up living in a world that avoids talking about this issue altogether.

  • Improve the information systems on risk factor exposure and irregular working conditions. In other words, we cannot merely count the number of people who get cancer, but rather have to determine how many people work with carcinogens. We are working on mapping both carcinogen and pesticide exposure. Priority must likewise be given to musculoskeletal disorders.

Which industries have the highest exposure to carcinogens?

Exposure can happen in any industry: construction, manufacturing, textiles, agriculture (remember, the sun is a carcinogen, too), etc. We will finish the carcinogen exposure map in the second half of this year, and it will be the second most comprehensive in Europe, after Finland's, which we used as a model.

What are the most common illnesses keeping workers from doing their jobs?

Musculoskeletal disorders. Although there is no clear percentage, they are the leading cause of accidents, occupational illnesses and common illnesses.

The second most common cause is mental health disorders (anxiety, depression), but the Spanish Social Security system does not recognize them as being work-related disorders and, therefore, we do not know the exact number. Based on existing studies, we know that there is a high exposure to psycho-social risk factors (related to stress), which end up manifesting themselves as mental health disorders. They are the second most common cause of missed workdays, so they are clearly a major work issue.

Why doesn't Social Security recognize them?

Social Security is designed to recognize occupational accidents. In fact, it was created so as not to leave workers who suffered accidents defenceless. An occupational accident is easy to see and to trace to a given cause. In contrast, if a person is depressed because of work, it is far harder to identify this and prove it. Thus, most of these illnesses are either recognized via a court decision or are not recognized as occupational at all. In any case, we have to get better at preventing them.

How can we do that?

By identifying risks before they happen and taking the appropriate measures. For example, in a completely unorganized workplace, in which no one is truly in charge, a great number of psycho-social risk factors are at play. Workers end up becoming stressed and, before you know it, depressed. How can we address that? First, by recognizing that there is an organizational problem and, then, by organizing the company and taking preventive measures.

Therefore, to ensure that people's health does not suffer, we must recognize that a risk exists and implement the necessary prevention techniques. One should always talk to the workers, too, and take their opinion into account, as they know the workplace better than anyone.

How can we prevent damage to self-employed workers' health?

Self-employed workers account for one fifth of the working population. It is paradoxical, because self-employed workers are responsible for their own work. Strategies for improving their health and safety should aim to raise their awareness and help them take a more active role. The situation is similar to how, by promoting a preventive culture, we managed to raise drivers' awareness and reduce car accidents.

How important are training and education to preventing occupational hazards?

They are vital. They are currently used as corrective or supplementary tools for improving working conditions. However, in future, training will be present from the time entrepreneurs complete their education and begin to design their business, managers begin to manage those businesses, and workers begin to work at them, and prevention will be a natural part of that.

How would you rate the UOC's master's programme in Health and Safety? How does it contribute to society?

The UOC's master's programme, like any other master's programme in this field, has to produce good professionals and consistently consider companies' evolving training and prevention needs. The business world is dynamic, so prevention must be, too. The UOC should pay close attention to new needs as they arise.

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