With pressure to reduce carbon emissions, reduce waste, increase energy efficiency and the proportion of renewable energy, the EU is set for a rapid growth in the number of ‘green jobs’ – jobs which help to protect or restore the environment.

But with new technologies and processes being introduced in the green economy, what are the implications for workers’ health and safety? With the publication of a new Foresight report, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) turns the spotlight on the occupational safety and health (OSH) risks of green jobs.

The Foresight project attempts to identify new or emerging risks in this important area. It works by identifying a number of possible future scenarios looking at how work is likely to develop in green jobs by 2020 and what future OSH challenges this may bring, given advances in green technologies, and a variety of different social and economic conditions.

As EU-OSHA Director Christa Sedlatschek says, ‘the scenarios developed through our Foresight project are powerful tools, which will provide policymakers in the EU with insights on how to shape the green economy of tomorrow to keep Europe’s workers safe and healthy. If they are to be truly sustainable, and if they are to contribute to the EU2020 Strategy’s objectives of achieving smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, we need to make sure that green jobs provide safe, healthy and decent working conditions. They need to be good for workers, as well as good for the environment.’

The EU is committed to balancing economic growth with efforts to protect the environment, and has set a number of challenging targets for reductions in carbon emissions and waste, and increases in energy efficiency and in the proportion of renewable energy. Meeting these targets will result in a rapid expansion in the green economy.

But there is already evidence that the ‘greening’ of the economy in the EU has resulted in workers being put at greater risk.

New technologies and processes call for new combinations of skills to deal with them, but the rapid growth in this area of the economy, together with economic and political pressure, could lead to skills gaps, with workers being dangerously inexperienced and untrained in the work they are doing.

There are also a number of 'old' risks, found in different situations and combinations equally requiring new specific skills.

The installation of photovoltaic elements on roofs, for example, combines traditional construction risks together with electrical risks: workers therefore need specific training to perform this job.

Some of the epoxy resins used in the manufacture of wind turbines are associated with allergies.

And the introduction of new legislation can have unintended effects: new laws reducing the amount of waste being sent to landfills, for example, has resulted in higher-than-average rates of work-related accidents and illness among workers in the waste treatment sector.

The report and a summary, entitled ‘Green jobs and occupational safety and health: Foresight on new and emerging risks associated with new technologies by 2020’, are available from EU-OSHA’s new website area dedicated to OSH risks in the green economy.

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) contributes to making Europe a safer, healthier and more productive place to work. The Agency researches, develops, and distributes reliable, balanced, and impartial safety and health information and organizes pan-European awareness raising campaigns. Set up by the European Union in 1996 and based in Bilbao, Spain, the agency brings together representatives from the European Commission, Member State governments, employers’ and workers’ organisations, as well as leading experts in each of the EU-27 Member States and beyond.

Now you can follow us on Twitter, visit the Agency’s blog or subscribe to our monthly newsletter OSHmail. You can also register for regular news and information from EU-OSHA via RSS feeds. http://osha.europa.eu

The Foresight project involves looking beyond those workplace risks that are currently ‘emerging’, to try to anticipate change in the longer term. It involves developing scenarios in certain subject areas, looking at what might happen given certain technological developments or changes in society, and the implications for OSH, which decision-makers can act on. The first Foresight project is looking at ‘green’ jobs; those which involve technology or practices which are designed to reduce environmental impact.

A report identifying the key drivers of change in the area and another on the key technologies in this area that may affect workplace health and safety were published in 2011.