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NWO-I health, safety and the environment (HSE): the added value of more collaboration

Professionalising HSE so that employees can do their work in a healthy and safe manner

All NWO-I employees have to deal with ‘health, safety and environment’ (HSE) on the work floor. However, there are big differences in the HSE risks different employees face. These range from working at a desk to working with hazardous substances, lasers and many other tasks with specific risks. HSE is important throughout NWO-I and the HSE coordinators, prevention staff and other experts help colleagues to do their work safely. Sjoerd Wouda is the HSE advisor at NWO-I. He is working with his colleagues on further professionalising the discipline within NWO-I, as is clear from the publication of the annual HSE plan 2023, which also contains the safety audit, and the implementation of a new IT system for HSE.

HSE at NWO-I in a nutshell

The Institutes, University Workgroups (BUW) and NWO-I Office are responsible for ensuring that employees of NWO-I can do their work in a healthy and safe manner.
The HSE coordinators of the Institutes and NWO-I Office regularly meet and exchange knowledge, align working methods and prepare NWO-I policy. The risks in the work performed differ per Institute: NSCR, CWI and the NWO-I Office are mainly characterised by an office environment, whereas other institutes have workshops, labs and experimental setups. Here there are risks associated with lasers, radioactive sources, vacuum, high temperatures or high voltages. All of these are specific risk areas. Wouda states that employees can only work safely if all of those risks are managed properly. "Employees need to know which risks they face and how to deal with them. Health and safety helps in creating that awareness and in finding solutions."

Professionalising HSE

The HSE coordinators meeting started with the realisation of the Annual plan 2023, which addresses three major subjects. The first listed by Wouda is the further professionalisation of HSE at NWO-I. This is partly due to the tightening of legislation and a different working method of the Netherlands Labour Authority.
Wouda: "The most important instrument for describing risks is the Risk Inventory and Evaluation (RI&E). It is mandatory for employers to have this and keep it up to date. The Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment has noted that the RI&E at many companies was not good enough. Therefore, new guidelines for this were implemented last year. For example, organisations must better investigate the risk of psychosocial workload (work pressure and undesirable behaviour) and there must be evidence-based advice for occupational health (OH) investigations. With an OH investigation, the remaining risks that cannot be prevented are monitored. For example, consider an eye exam once every few years for employees who do screen work".

Reporting accidents

Under European legislation, NWO-I will also have to annually report more data concerning the composition of its personnel and the working conditions. This means that such information should be easily available. Wouda also mentions an upcoming change in the Dutch Health and Safety Act, as a result of which both the hirers and lenders of personnel must report accidents. The lender also has the so-called 'obligation to verify', the duty to investigate that employees can safely work at the employer who hires them in. This means, for example, that organisations must always be able to demonstrate which (serious) occupational accidents have recently taken place. For NWO-I, this is important not only for employees hired via job agencies, but also for researchers who do research outside of their own institute or who come from elsewhere within NWO-I.

Added value of collaboration

An inventory will soon be made of the HSE risks within the institutes. This inventory will also critically examine in which areas cooperation between the institutes has added value. Wouda: "We need to make better use of each other's knowledge and expertise. An expert from one institute might also be able to deploy their expertise at another institute. With that, you can limit the need to hire in external experts. As an institute, there is a long list of HSE subjects that you need to be well-versed in, and if that expertise can be spread across the institutes, then you can increase your efficiency. It will also allow the colleagues concerned to specialise more".

Safety audit

The safety audit is the second subject in the annual plan. The NWO audit department carries out this audit of the entire NWO-I organisation. The audit focuses on the safety subareas hazardous substances, experimental setups and the office environment. The audit will probably result in points for improvement that NWO-I must set to work with.

Wouda gives improvements in managing and storing chemicals as an example: "If a PhD student has gained their doctorate and leaves the institute, then the substances they used often remain in the cupboard because these might be useful in a future study. But how long should you store these for, and what do you do with packages where the use-by date has expired? By making policy for this and disposing of substances at the right moment, you can reduce the quantity of hazardous substances and the associated risks".

Implementation of HSE IT system 

The third subject from the annual HSE plan is the purchase of a new HSE IT system by NWO-I for registering the supplies of hazardous substances, biological agents, genetically modified organisms and genetic sources. The aim is to implement the system at AMOLF, ARCNL, ASTRON, Nikhef and NIOZ.

More information about HSE

Besides the main subjects, several smaller subjects are on the agenda (see the text box).
Would you like to know more about HSE issues at NWO-I? Then please visit the special health and safety pages on the NWO-I website.

Smaller subjects on HSE

Instructions for (new) employees

An organisation must be able to demonstrate that new employees receive instructions about the risks involved in the work and the associated preventative measures. Wouda: "That can concern instructions about the use of personal protective agents, or having to perform a test before you can work with chemicals. Together with P&O, we are examining a joint NWO-I-wide e-learning system that can also be used for other digital trainings, for example, about scientific integrity".

Policy pregnancy and the wish to have children

NWO-I has revised the policy concerning the protection of its employees who wish to have children. This focuses on employees receiving information about the risks of the work in the case of a wish to have children, pregnancy and while giving breastfeeding, and that the organisation takes measures for such cases. In this stricter policy, nanomaterials are now explicitly listed under hazardous substances. Wouda: "At NWO-I, many young people work who might not have a wish to have children now, but one day might. They need to know which risks are associated with working with dangerous substances, for example".

Accident investigation

In the case of an occupational accident, the Netherlands Labour Authority (NLA) may currently only carry out an investigation in the case of serious accidents. For all other accidents, the employer must carry out this investigation. All HSE coordinators of NWO-I have received training in a method for investigating occupational accidents. An important focus in this is that the researchers should identify the underlying causes for the accident in particular so as to prevent these from resulting in other incidents.

Text: Anita van Stel

Newsletter Inside NWO-I, June/July 2023.
You can find the archive of the newsletter Inside NWO-I on the NWO-I website.

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