Print this page

Sjoerd Wouda, health and safety coordinator NWO-I, about the need for and benefits of good working conditions

Healthy and happy colleagues due to good working conditions

In 2020, Sjoerd Wouda became the health and safety coordinator for NWO-I. He considers health and safety to be a highly diverse subject. It covers COVID-19 measures, working with a computer and safe laser setups but also (un)desirable behaviour and hybrid working. ‘Employee absenteeism causes a lot of distress and considerable costs for the organisation. That is why preventing the occurrence of incidents is so important. It is crucial to be aware of the risks and to know which safety measures apply.’

Joining the works council

Sjoerd knows NWO-I inside out. He started 24 years ago as a software engineer at AMOLF. The ever-changing research made working on support software interesting for a long time but, in the end, he was ready for a new challenge. Besides his normal job, he was also a member of the AMOLF works council and the central works council of the FOM Foundation, which AMOLF fell under back then. FOM became part of NWO, and during this transition, Sjoerd chaired the consultation between all of the works councils involved: NWO, FOM, NIOZ, CWI and, at the time, ZonMw as well. ‘That was often a full-time job’, he recalls. ‘After the transition, I also became chair of the COR NWO (NWO Central Works Council). I did that for one period and then I had to stop because I had reached the maximum of eight years of continuous participation in works councils.’ As he had enjoyed his time in the works councils so much, he decided to look for a position that bore similarities with this. Sjoerd: ‘I had an affinity with health and safety and due to my role within the works councils, I had contact with the health and safety coordinators. Why do I enjoy working on health and safety so much? Because it enables me to help colleagues work in a safe and pleasant way.’

48 risk areas

Two years ago, at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the position of health and safety coordinator at NWO-I became available. Sjoerd applied for the job, was hired and thrown in at the deep end: COVID-19 created a completely different work situation. He looks back: ‘The most important question was always how employees could work safely and how NWO-I could translate the COVID-19 guidelines from the government to the circumstances at the institutes and the NWO-I office. At the start of the pandemic, our main problem was finding information for evidence-based recommendations. We focused on preventing Legionella, how to deal with infections, or whether we could use alcohol for disinfection (for that is on the list of carcinogenic substances) and anything else which arose.’ And now, following COVID-19, what does a typical working day of a health and safety coordinator look like? Sjoerd: ‘I ensure that consultations proceed well, that workgroups around certain themes start and, for example, that NWO-I benefits from the expertise of other organisations. A case in point is a recently established workgroup to select a method for investigating incidents, which we will use throughout NWO-I. In collaboration with health and safety coordinators from university hospitals and universities, we are examining how we can best organise digital information and training. An initial inventory at all NWO-I units revealed that there were 48 risk areas varying from computer work, diving, explosives and chemicals to undesirable behaviour. Each risk area needs to be included in policy and requires that we have measures in place. Many colleagues throughout the NWO-I organisation are working on this.’

Being aware of risks

As an example, Sjoerd mentions the policy for dealing with intense light sources, such as lasers. Without appropriate measures, the use of lasers involves a fairly high risk of eye damage. Sjoerd: ‘Together with laser experts from the institutes, we have formulated a policy framework that states what an institute must organise. For example, that a laser setup can only be used after a laser specialist has issued advice about this, and it is clear which actions are needed if something goes wrong. Everything that we do within the broad field of health and safety is aimed at minimising risks. Each health and safety colleague at an institute ensures that users are well trained, aware of the risks and continue to strictly adhere to the safety measures. Thanks in part to this prevention the number of incidents is fortunately small.’

Victim blaming

Sjoerd’s own area of expertise is psychosocial workload. He completed the course to become a labour and organisation expert. ‘The risk of reduced employee well-being is harder to determine than the risk of working with an angle grinder. Due to the problems at the Dutch TV production The Voice and Dutch football club Ajax, there is now a lot of attention for undesirable behaviour in organisations, which is more than justified.’ Last year, the Health and Safety Catalogue chapter about psychosocial workload was already rewritten. This chapter includes a description of sexually transgressive behaviour too and advice on how to deal with victims who report undesirable behaviour. Sjoerd: ‘There needs to be far more awareness about victim blaming, which means that the environment blames the victim for being responsible for undesirable behaviour. That could be directly responsible, as in the case of: ‘Yes, but you shouldn’t have worn such a short skirt.’ But it could also be indirectly by pressing the victim to make a complaint. Victims are often scared of the reaction of the environment and are therefore reluctant to bring up undesirable behaviour. As a line manager, you must know how to deal with the report and with the response of the environment. Research in academia reveals that the risk of undesirable behaviour is high. And that will not be any different in our organisation. I believe that all our managers must receive a training so that they can deal with this situation adequately.’

Power relationships

Undesirable behaviour extends further than just sexually transgressive behaviour. It also concerns power relationships between line managers and employees, and between colleagues at the same level. Sjoerd says that victims of abuse that took place over many years also need a very long time to recover. The mandatory risk inventory and evaluation (RI&E) can expose what is going on in this area and which measures are needed. He believes that the top of an organisation must understand and reflect the need for a healthy organisational culture: ‘For example, if you’re always mailing your employees in the evening and at weekends to ask them questions, then you implicitly state that you expect an answer and do not respect their free time. PhD students have a dependency relationship with their supervisor, as this person to a large extent determines their future. People in a position of power should realise this. Furthermore, they have an exemplary role for young researchers.’

Hybrid working

Now that all COVID-19 measures have been abolished, a new situation has come into being: hybrid working. According to the Health and Safety Act, employers are obliged to ensure a safe and healthy workplace. That applies to the workplace at home too. Sjoerd: ‘The biggest risk of working from home is that people do not work in an ergonomic way and develop physical complaints. Another risk is that people become “detached from the organisation”. People no longer know where they stand, they lose contact with colleagues, and they develop stress as a result of this. A new situation has also arisen for line managers because hybrid working requires a new form of leadership, which is again different from the time when we all had to work from home due to the lockdowns. As health and safety experts, we will keep a close eye on this because the circumstances may require appropriate measures. Everything I do in my work is about preventing undesirable situations in advance so that less absenteeism occurs. Employee absenteeism leads to a lot of suffering and considerable costs for the organisation. Good working conditions contribute to healthy and happy colleagues.’

About Sjoerd Wouda

Sjoerd Wouda (46) lives in Zaandijk with his wife and two teenagers (18 and 15). In his spare time, he enjoys ballroom dancing. He likes doing DIY and is a fan of Lego 18+.

More information

Would you like to know more about health and safety within NWO-I? Please visit this page: Working conditions for NWO-I staff.

Text: Anita van Stel
Newsletter Inside NWO-I, April 2022
You can find the archive of the newsletter Inside NWO-I on the NWO-I website.

Confidental Infomation