Green jobs: workers’ safety and health

The EU is working hard to balance economic growth with the need to protect the environment, and has set itself challenging targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing energy efficiency and promoting renewable energy, and reducing waste.

This has given rise to a wide range of green jobs — jobs which contribute to preserving the environment, or restoring it to what it was. If they are to be truly sustainable, though, we need to make sure that these jobs provide safe, healthy and decent working conditions. Green jobs need to be good for workers, as well as good for the environment.

Green jobs

Green jobs cover a wide range of different jobs in different sectors, and involve a diverse workforce. There are many different definitions of the term, such as the ones by the United Nations Environment Programme , the European Commission  or Eurostat . But green jobs can be understood as contributing, in some way, to the preservation or restoration of the environment. They can include jobs that help to protect ecosystems and biodiversity, or reduce consumption of energy and raw materials, reduce waste and pollution. Our purpose at EU-OSHA is to raise awareness of the need for good occupational safety and health (OSH) in these jobs. Green jobs need to provide safe, healthy and decent working conditions in order to contribute to a truly smart, sustainable and inclusive growth and meet the objectives of the European Commission’s Europe 2020 strategy .

Why is it important to consider OSH in green jobs?

We tend to associate the word ‘green’ with safety — but what is good for the environment is not necessarily good for the safety and health of workers who are employed in green jobs. In some cases already, we have seen new legislation and technologies, designed to protect the environment, resulting in workers being put at greater risk. Reducing the amount of waste being sent to landfills, for example, has resulted in higher rates of accidents and illnesses among workers whose job it is to process it.

The new technologies or working processes associated with green jobs can lead to new hazards, which call for new combinations of skills to deal with them: the ‘old’ OSH knowledge cannot simply be transferred to them. Installing a solar water heater, for example, involves combining the skills of a roofer, a plumber and an electrician.

The speed at which the green economy is expected to expand could lead to skills gaps, with inexperienced workers involved in processes that they have not been trained for, and who therefore put their safety and health at risk. There may also be a stronger polarisation of the workforce towards skills, with low-skilled workers pushed to accept poorer working conditions. Last but not least, economic and political pressure could lead to OSH concerns being overlooked.

If green jobs are to be truly sustainable, we need to make sure that they benefit workers’ safety and health, as well as the environment. In the green economy, as elsewhere, good OSH plays a vital role in increasing competitiveness and productivity. In this fast-developing area, we need to ensure that what is good for the environment is good for workers too.

EU-OSHA has also investigated in more depth the OSH issues associated with specific green technological areas highlighted in the foresight study, such as small-scale solar energy applications, green construction or wind energy.

Source: European Agency for Safety and Health at work

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