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February 14, 2020
NIOSH researching healthy work design

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has developed a research agenda into healthy work design and worker well-being. The institute recently released a final version of the National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA) for Healthy Work Design and Well-Being. A draft version was released March 2019.

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NIOSH and its partners in the NORA Councils set priorities for occupational safety and health research into major safety and health issues affecting U.S. workers through the research agenda. The healthy work design and well-being research agenda will look into ways to protect and advance worker health, safety, and well-being by improving management practices and the design of work.

The agenda’s first objective is to identify and examine the impact of worker demographics on employer and organizational practices and worker health, safety, and well-being. Workers in certain demographic groups have elevated health and safety risks due to disparities in employment opportunities, management practices and worker treatment, and wages, as well as exposure to physically demanding, labor-intensive jobs and unsafe working environments.

Issues NIOSH seeks to explore include:

  • Workers in some demographic groups are more likely to have work arrangements that are contingent or temporary in fields such as construction, extraction, farming, fishing, and forestry work.
  • Such temporary work may not provide employee benefits such as health insurance, paid leave, and retirement, affecting overall worker well-being.
  • Researchers seek to develop and implement age-friendly work design, management practices, and physical and psychosocial work environments to create workplaces that are safe for all workers as they age.
  • Researchers have a limited understanding of the safety, health, and well-being impacts upon gay and transgender workers who may face maltreatment while at work.

The second objective of the research agenda is to improve the safety, health, and well-being of workers with nonstandard work arrangements. There has been an upward trend in the share of the U.S. workforce in nonstandard work arrangements, often referred to as “gig work.” Some researchers have seen reduced worker well-being and increased opioid use among gig workers.

Some of the research gaps that NIOSH seeks to fill include:

  • Improving occupational health surveillance systems’ data collection on work arrangements, including information on arrangements in multiple jobs held simultaneously and associated adverse health outcomes;
  • Describing the characteristics of nonstandard work that are detrimental to worker health; and
  • Determining effective interventions that could improve the safety, health, and well-being of workers in nonstandard work arrangements and collecting and disseminating such best practices.

Other objectives include addressing the health and safety implications of advances in artificial intelligence and information technology; reducing the effects of work organization and job design on acute and chronic worker health conditions; decreasing the burden of shiftwork, long work hours, and sleep deficiency; identifying and developing healthier work design and better organizational practices; and promoting a sustainable work/life balance.

Many chronic health conditions have been shown to be associated with job design, work organization, and associated job stress. For example, the International Commission on Occupational Health has stated that 10 percent to 20 percent of all causes of deaths from cardiovascular disease are work-related.

The NORA objectives will inform NIOSH’s decisions in setting research priorities that may identify effective interventions that the institute and its partners will then disseminate to employers. The NORA Council for healthy work design and well-being includes participants from NIOSH, industry, labor unions, and colleges and universities.

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