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Palle Ørbæk signals new course for Europe’s work environment policies

Palle Ørbæk signals new course for Europe’s work environment policies

| Text: Marie Preisler

Making sure people can work to their best capacity should be a top priority when improving working environments says Palle Ørbæk, director general at the Danish Research Centre for the Working Environment. Ten other top European working environment researchers are backing him.

It is high time European countries and the EU changed their focus when it comes to improving working environments, and that they made work capacity key, thinks Palle Ørbæk. He has refocused the research at the National Research Centre for the Working Environment, NFA, which he has been leading for the past nine years.

“So far research and work to improve working environments both in Denmark and in the rest of Europe has mainly been focusing on preventing physical or psychological damage. But this classical approach is too narrow. It’s a far better starting point to make sure everyone can work to their best capacity, and that’s our starting point at the NFA”, says Palle Ørbæk.

Europe’s population is ageing and many retire early because of reduced work capacity and ill health. This trend worries both Palle Ørbæk and the other ten European research centre leaders in Perosh, a network of 11 European working environment research centres. Mr Ørbæk used to be the network’s chairman. 

In a new joint report to the EU and European countries the network points out there are still major challenges surrounding working environments to be solved. The report says skeletal muscular pains like back pain make up the most common reason behind sick leave in European workplaces. It also says workers across Europe fear a growing range of psychosocial problems like stress, as global competition grows and working patters change.

More knowledge about pain

In their report ‘Sustainable workplaces of the future - European Research Challenges for occupational safety and health’ the 11 research centres say these challenges as well as the challenges resulting from an increased use of nano technology by industries should be given top priority in the coming years.

There is also cross-border agreement that the many major challenges can only be solved by working on many fronts to safeguard workers’ work capacity. Palle Ørbæk is very pleased with this:

“It is a very positive development when there’s growing agreement across Europe that the classical approach is not enough to stop people going off sick and becoming unemployable.”

He thinks far more needs to be learnt about pain, and about the complex relationship between the physical and social reasons for why some people loose their ability to work because of a bad back while others manage to work well despite back pain.

Mental safety culture

The reasons behind stress are also complex, says Palle Ørbæk. Workers across Europe are increasingly worried about getting stressed. And it is a completely rational fear, he thinks. But stress is not only a working environment problem. It is also a general social problem.

“The 24/7 society is growing. So when we say our workplaces are stressing us out, this often mirrors that the sum total of work related and private stress factors has grown.”

He admits he himself sometimes has a hard time deciding that ‘now the working day is done’ and commit fully to family life at home in Malmö. Perhaps there is a need for a mental safety culture, he suggests with a smile. Workplace culture is crucial for both psychological and physical working environments, including the number of workplace accidents. 

Worrying amount of accidents

Palle Ørbæk is worried by the fact that both in Europe in general and in Denmark there are still many serious workplace accidents. 

“The statistics are terrible, and the true figures are even higher. Unfortunately we have failed to put a stop to serious accidents. It’s especially young, newly hired and foreign workers who are hurt. They might not have had sufficient instruction or they don’t understand it and perhaps they come from a country with a completely different culture,” says Palle Ørbæk.

He thinks the safety culture needs to change. In our part of the world today everybody think it is reckless to drive without a safety belt. It was perfectly normal 30 years ago, but the culture has changed. A similar change is needed when it comes to adapting workplaces and work processes to prevent accidents from happening.

Action on nano technology now

Palle Ørbæk also thinks it is time for radical and rapid action when it comes to the use of nano technology. Research on nano safety lags far behind the industrial use which is powering forward. He thinks there’s an urgent need to develop tests which can determine whether products or production methods are safe, or whether regulations are needed for how to handle the product - aimed both at those involved in production of products containing nano particles and at end users.

“Personally this situation does not alarm me, because I think we can get in early enough. But we need to act now,” he says.

Consumer organisations have been particularly worried and demand products be labelled to allow consumers to choose whether they want to buy them if they contain nano particles. He leaves it to politicians to decide whether this is a good solution. But labelling cannot solve all problems, says Palle Ørbæk. Only a few products containing nano particles are problematic, and it is impossible for individual consumers to find out which they are.

Luckily there’s a global focus on nano security. Experts from more than 30 countries have just visited NFA and it’s new Danish Centre for Nano-Safety, and over the next three years they will do research into how to improve risk assessment of nano particles. The centre has researchers from five Danish research institutions, led by professor Ulla Vogel at the Danish Research Centre for the Working Environment.

Optimistic about the future

The Danish government was criticised for failing to mention working environments in its 2020 economic plan. But Palle Ørbæk is confident, because if the government is to succeed increasing the labour force with 180,000 new jobs as promised, it needs to secure good working environments where there is also space for people with reduced work capacity.   

Meanwhile the Danish parliament last year drew up a plan to improve working environments towards 2020 in order to reduce the number of skeletal muscular injuries and psychological stress by 20 percent. The plan has broad political support. 

Palle Ørbæk reckons skeletal muscular damage and stress will remain great challenges in ten years‘ time, but expects there will be more and better measures in place to prevent such damage. It will also not be possible to completely eradicate workplace accidents, but within that same timeframe there will be considerably fewer, he predicts. He also thinks new chemicals will present new challenges.

More health focus at work

When that is said, he does believe there will be a breakthrough when it comes to workers’ general health. The social partners will take more and more responsibility to make sure that workers get enough sleep, eat healthily and get enough exercise. And while general health campaigns appeal mainly to people of higher education, workplace measures can reach more people, he predicts. 

But all this must be done carefully, he says.

“Promoting health at work is a natural extension of the drive to improve working environments, but it must happen in a way which does not hamper individuals’ right to choose their own lifestyle. There must also be proof that it works and is safe. Measuring workers’ blood pressure doesn’t in it self make anyone healthier.”

A Swedish Dane

Swedes were quicker than Danes to see the need for applying a global perspective to working environment research, but the Danes have caught up, thinks Palle Ørbæk. He can make that statement based on considerable personal experience.

He was born, raised and trained to be a doctor in Denmark, but after graduating it was easier to get a job on the other side of the strait. So he moved and got a job at the Lund University Hospital, specialising in occupational and working environment medicine. Even though he has spent the past few years working out of Østerbro in Copenhagen with NFA, he still lives in Sweden with his Swedish wife. Their adult daughter has moved to Copenhagen. Yet his Swedish roots reveal themselves in his language: he speaks fluent Danish with a hint of a Swedish accent.



Facts on Palle Ørbæk

Director General at the Danish Research Centre for the Working Environment since 2003

Previously chairman for Perosh, a network of 11 European working environment research centres
Previously consultant at the Lund University Hospital, specialising in occupational and working environment medicine

Born in 1952

Lives in Malmö with his Swedish wife, has one adult daughter


Facts on the NFA

The Danish Research Centre for the Working Environment is a national centre for working environment research. It carries out statistical research and helps coordinate Danish working environment research. It also surveys international working environment research. It reports research based knowledge to the Danish Working Environment Authority, the Ministry of Employment, the social partners, businesses and working environment advisors. 

Towards 2014 NFA will focus on four research areas:

  • Psychological working environments
  • Skeletal muscular pains
  • Nano technology
  • Accidents and safety structures


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