Birgit Horn is a lightning bolt of energy, making her way through a crowd of people leaving morning sessions of the 35th International Congress for Occupational Health and Occupational Medicine on Oct. 18. When asked how she’s doing, she replies that she’s good, but that the response to A+A and the conference has been so intense that the local transportation system – buses, trains and taxis – were overwhelmed that morning, making for some late starts.
“It’s a good problem to have,” Horn, the director of the massive endeavor that is A+A, acknowledges with a smile.
A+A – the Trade Fair for Safety, Security and Health at Work and the 35th International Congress for Occupational Health and Occupational Medicine, managed by Messe Dusseldorf GmbH, are occurring in Düsseldorf from Oct. 17-20 and they provide an overview of the latest trends in occupational safety and health. On the products and services side, exhibits range from corporate “fashion” (office design) and ergonomic office furniture; to PPE, fire protection and emergency management; to health and wellness; to safety management, software and environmental protection measures.
Horn said that the congress includes experts from occupational health and safety management, HR managers, labor leaders, occupational physicians and nurses, emergency responders, representatives from workers’ compensation insurance carriers, corporate leaders and occupational safety and health organizations, like the International Labor Organization (ILO), the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, the National Research Centre for the Working Environment (Denmark), the German Social Accident Insurance (the national workers’ compensation insurance provider), the UK Health and Safety Executive and the German Federal Association for Occupational Safety and Health (Basi). The 35th International Congress for Occupational Safety and Occupational Medicine – organized by Basi – features 50 lectures that address current issues and as well as a conference-within-a-conference that has been organized by ILO.
The theme of A+A 2017 is the Future of Work – what Horn calls “Work 4.0” – the “digitization" of work and its impact on employees in terms of technological advances such as robots in the workplace, “smart” PPE and monitoring of remote employees.
Driven by trends such as digitization, globalization and demographic change, changes are occurring in the world of work at a pace that far exceeds anything we’ve seen before. Companies and their employees are being required to work more flexibly and respond more quickly to customer demands in order to stay competitive. Safety and health for workers not only includes their physical safety at work, but also their physical health both at work and home.
New illness and injury prevention approaches need to encompass things like employee stress and work/life balance, says Horn. There often is a correlation between stress and musculoskeletal issues and injuries, she adds, and stress also can lead to a lack of productivity and inattention to work. Corporate leaders need to address the work environment – both the physical and psychosocial aspects – if they want to stay competitive.
“It’s really about leadership,” Horn says, “and management of employees, whether they’re working from home, remote locations or from offices. It’s about the organization of work and [the interface of] workers and [technology such as] robots, which are very strong and could injure workers.”
The organization of work to ensure employees interact safely with technology now found in the workplace, the demands made of and by employers facing global pressure to be flexible in their response to clients' needs as well as the use of appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) are crucial in creating safe workplaces. Horn has been with A+A for 8 years. When she took the helm of A+A, employers provided PPE to workers because it is mandated by various workplace safety laws around the world.
“That approach has changed,” says Horn. The selling point for PPE among workers and employers no longer “is just about meeting regulations. It’s about convincing workers to wear PPE by making it fashionable, ergonomic [comfortable] and stylish. Workers look at the clothes, the eyewear, the shoes and say, ‘I want to wear this.’”
Calling work “a flexible concept,” Horn adds that employees are more mobile than in the past; work no longer is a group of employees in a single factory or in several factories in a single country. Employees are spread out all over the world and don’t necessarily work in an office or facility. Many work alone, so how can employers track them and ensure they are safe and are wearing PPE?
Communication in all forms is part of the digitization of work and also plays a role in the future of PPE, she notes: “We have employees on global teams. Companies have employees in Europe, Asia, the United States. How do they communicate and interface?” A large part of the answer to that question is smart clothing and PPE, says Horn. Glasses that can feed data back to central communication centers, clothing that monitors heart rates and body temperatures, equipment that notifies employees if they're wearing it wrong or if it is reaching the end of its life and software that monitors productivity and safety.
Increasingly, work is becoming “a war of talent,” says Horn. The companies that show support for employees by providing appropriate training and PPE, that support employees' need to have more flexibility with work hours and the organization of work, that provide a better balance between work and family life and that create a friendly work environment will win that war of talent, she says. The employers who do not understand the importance of healthy work and healthy workers will lose that war of talent and ultimately, will not be competitive in the future.