In 1986, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) listed psychological disorders among the ten leading work-related diseases and injuries among U.S. workers. Psychosocial hazards, however, have received scant attention among safety and health pros over the past decades. This is mainly because most pros focus on controlling physical, chemical and biological hazards in workplaces.

Let’s look at the landscape in 2010: 1) Polls show the majority of Americans are worried about job stress; 2) A shift from an industrial economy to a knowledge and service economy is ongoing, with the potential for greater psychosocial hazards; and 3) The issue of psychosocial hazards at work is gaining global recognition. Put these trends together and psychosocial hazards should now rank equally in importance to managing workplace physical, chemical and biological hazards.

What are psychosocial hazards?

There is no simple definition for psychosocial hazards - one reason health and safety professionals have largely worked around the issue. According to NIOSH, psychological hazards include an unsatisfactory work environment such as “work overload, lack of control over one’s work, non-supportive supervisors or co-workers, limited job opportunities, role ambiguity or conflict, rotating shiftwork, and machine-paced work.” Psychosocial hazards, however, may be anything that conflicts with an employee’s social and mental well-being.

Impact on objectives

The negative impact of psychosocial hazards on an organization’s objectives include increased grievances and litigation; employee turnover; poor quality control; reduced productivity; sabotage; violence; absenteeism; and presenteeism. Presenteeism is a growing problem - employees are discontent with their job but they do not leave. Instead, they “retire on the job” and give minimal effort to help achieve organizational objectives. Studies show presenteeism among U.S. workers may be three times higher than absenteeism.

Select “mental disorder” as an injury type in OSHA’s “$afety Pays” web-based program http:// html and a single event may have a $2.6 million dollar impact on an organization’s profitability.

Occupational disease

In March 2010, the International Labour Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations, for the first time listed mental and behavioral disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders, and other mental or behavioral disorders as a recognized occupational disease. This action by the ILO furthers the importance of the ISO 26000 Guidance on social responsibility standard (final standard expected to be published fourth quarter 2010) that includes a clause for all organizations worldwide to “strive to eliminate psychosocial hazards in the workplace, which contribute or lead to stress and illness.”

Psychosocial disorders, under various definitions and conditions, are valid workers’ compensation claims in all U.S. states. Mental or emotional impairment that results from a traumatic event that is “extraordinary and unusual” is usually allowed.

But this concept is being stretched. In November 2009, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that a prison guard is eligible for workers’ compensation for mental impairment after he was threatened by an inmate. Even though threats from inmates to guards are common in prisons, some threats rise above what is ordinary and usual, ruled the court.

This year, a bill was introduced in Connecticut that will allow claims of mental or emotional impairment when police officers use deadly force on animals that attempt to injure them.

The famous World War II military leader General Patton, who reportedly once slapped a mentally stressed soldier in a hospital ward, could not fathom what’s happening with military personnel today. Mental stress, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, among people serving in the U.S. military is at alltime high. The most acute consequence of stress is sobering: in FY 2009, 160 soldiers took their own lives and there were 1,713 suicide attempts. All branches of the military have ramped up efforts to recognize and control psychosocial disorders.


Psychosocial hazards are a workplace risk. As such, these hazards should be initially addressed through ISO 31000:2009 Risk Management - Principles and Guidelines.

Other consensus standards that may help address psychosocial hazards include ISO 26000 and various elements within safety and health management systems standards such as OHSAS 18001 and ANSI Z10.

Although safety and health management systems focus control on physical, chemical and biological hazards, employee involvement activities such as safety committees and management leadership actions help support the recognition and control of psychosocial hazards.

The U.S. trails other nations, particularly countries in Europe, Australia and Canada, in recognition and control of psychosocial hazards. Therefore, international guidance on psychosocial hazards is necessary.

Assessment tools

Risk assessment is a major element within ISO 31000. Risk assessments for psychosocial hazards will generally come in the form of various measures, such as a survey of employees’ values, attitudes and beliefs.

A review of the United Kingdom’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE) report, “A critical review of psychosocial hazard measures” uk/research/crr_pdf/2001/crr01356.pdf, may help identify the measure(s) that are most appropriate to help meet your organization’s objectives.

The HSE’s “Stress management competency indicator tool,”, which determines an individual’s “stress management competence profile,” is designed to assess whether managers and line supervisors have the behaviors that are effective to prevent and reduce stress at work. Safety and health pros should use the tool to see where they rank on the profile and determine if they have behaviors that need improvement.


The following websites provide excellent guidance on psychosocial hazards: en/WCMS_108557/index.htm

The Navy and Marine Corps Public Health Center stress management website is an excellent gateway for locating psychosocial hazard recognition and stress management education programs. Link to the site at Psychological_Health/Stress_Management/stress_ presentations.aspx

Sharing turf

Many of the controls for psychosocial disorders have a human resource component. HR involvement is notable in the HSE’s 10/09 document, “How to tackle work-related stress” (see HSE link above). Safety and health pros will need to share the turf with HR and complement each other’s interests and skills if objectives are to be met. The evolution of behavioral safety programs that brought HR into the mix to help control accidents and injuries demonstrate that combined efforts among various career and job titles will be necessary to control psychosocial disorders.

Build people skills

Organizational management and people skills are necessary to fully appreciate, recognize, evaluate and control psychosocial disorders. These skills are not generally viewed as strengths among many safety and health pros. But as work is redefined in the growing knowledge and service economy, management and people skills become more important to help prevent injury and illness.

The theory of psychosocial disorders and their development into occupational disease have evolved to the point where putting theory into practice is now at hand.