ESSEN, Germany (ILO Online) - RWE Rhein-Ruhr, Germany's leading company in the energy sector, employs some 7,000 workers at headquarters in Essen alone. Working with electricity and other forms of energy involves particular safety requirements even today.
Company training programmes on selected topics, including working at heights or handling dangerous substances, run for several weeks. "Circle work" permits the employees to constantly improve their working conditions: together with a facilitator they can further develop protective clothing, tools and other safety devices.
For the linemen, a research project in collaboration with the German Sports University in Cologne, helps to prevent foreseeable long-term injuries caused by constraint postures on the electricity masts.
"Occupational safety and health has a long-standing tradition at the energy group RWE and is part of our corporate culture", says Manfred Reindl, Former Executive Director, RWE Rhein-Ruhr. "However, prevention is not limited to traditional occupational safety and health. Modern risks, such as mental stress at the workplace, are also part of our efforts to refine prevention systems systematically."
Confronted with a rise in work intensity and employee anxiety over potential job losses during restructuring, RWE recently launched "Great Climate" to promote corporate culture. Executives and employees discuss avoidable stress factors at the workplace. A theatre piece and a film inform employees and their family members about ways to deal with stress and encourage employees to make concrete proposals to promote well-being at work.
Prevention produces major economic benefits
"Besides the long-term effects of permanent stress on the individual's health, it is also a considerable factor of cost for the enterprise", says Bernd Tenckhoff, Professor at Bochum University of Applied Sciences. "A quota of 95 per cent of our staff being healthy means that 350 out of 7,000 employees are not working that day. The annual cost of this absence from work will be 22.5 million Euros a year. If we raise the quota only by 1 per cent, this will produce a 4.5 million Euros economic benefit each year".
According to Tenckhoff, these numbers are only the tip of the iceberg. "Demotivation, depression and other forms of mental ill health affect employees' productivity long before they become really ill", she says.
"Mental health is the Achilles' heel of a knowledge-based economy", says Gerd Albracht, ILO Coordinator for the Development of Labour Inspection Systems. "By the year 2020, depression is expected to be the second most common cause of disability in the developed world. It has been estimated that the economic costs of mental ill health result in a loss of up to 4 per cent of the European Union's (EU) Gross Domestic Product (GDP), mainly through productivity losses".
Work-related stress now represents one of the greatest occupational health problems in the EU. When half of the roughly 150 million employees in Europe now feel exposed to substantial pressure at work, the damage to companies and the economy is considerable: The EU estimates the material costs of stress at the workplace at roughly 20 billion Euros every year.
"Comprehensive workplace wellness programs deliver impressive cost savings and improve productivity", comments Jukka Takala, head of the ILO SafeWork programme. "Such activities based on partnership between employers and workers and a company health policy are investments in the future of an enterprise. They ensure competitiveness in the long term by building-up and maintaining human wealth".
In the EU, the total cost of occupational accidents in the year 2000 was 55 billion Euros a year. "This is probably an underestimate. The number does not cover costs of work-related diseases that cause 1.6 to 2.2 times more days of temporary incapacity than accidents, while there are 2.4 times more people reporting long-standing health problems at work", comments Takala.
The ILO estimates that 4 per cent of the global GDP is lost each year due to work-related accidents and diseases.
The ILO conference " Fair Globalization - Safe Workplace: Policies, Strategies and Practices for Sustainable Development" provided a platform of exchange for some 300 high-level representatives from governments, workers' and employers' organizations, multinational companies and other stakeholders. The meeting highlighted not only the economics of occupational safety and health (OSH), but also discussed comprehensive strategies to tackle the OSH challenges in the world of work.
A comprehensive selection of the conference's speeches and presentations will be available shortly after the conference on the ILO SafeWork - Labour Inspection homepage (www.ilo.org/labourinspection).