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The changing world of work: an exploration of its implications for work-related harm

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In Britain and other developed economies, the world of work has been undergoing profound, and often inter-related, processes of change during the past few decades. Employment has shifted away from manufacturing and other 'heavier' industries to the service sector; non-manual work has grown in importance; trade union membership and power have generally declined; small and medium-sized enterprises have become a more important source of employment; and there has been a marked growth of outsourcing as organisations have increasingly sought to contract 'third parties' to deliver services on their behalf, provide them with labour, or undertake internal, or formerly internal, work activities. On top of this, in recent years governments have introduced major changes to their regulatory strategies and, more generally, shown a growing interest in the role that 'soft' forms of regulation – such as methods of education, persuasion and advice – can play within them.

It almost goes without saying that these changes have potentially important implications for the nature and levels of the work-related health and safety risks faced by workers. Whether these implications are of a generally positive or negative type, however, is an issue that has received relatively little detailed attention. As a result, both optimistic and pessimistic interpretations could, on the basis of existing evidence, be easily, and misleadingly, put forward, with potentially dysfunctional consequences for the design of regulatory strategies and the priority accorded to the identification and control of risks.

Focusing primarily on the case of Britain, this paper seeks to provide an exploratory examination of the links between the above types of change and levels of work-related injury and ill health, and to consider the implications that they have for regulatory policy. Initially, attention is paid to the potential relationship that exists between the changes and the extent of the health and safety risks faced by workers through an exploration of four related themes:

• the 'occupational, contractual and industrial reconfiguration' of employment

• the 'deconcentration' of employment

• the changing nature of work activities and control

• the way in which regulatory strategies have been undergoing a process of revision.

Following this, attention turns to a consideration of what the currently available evidence tells us about the way in which the levels of risk facing workers have recently been changing, and how far it accords with the arguments advanced concerning the potential impact of these changes.


Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: June 1, 2006

More about this publication?
  • Policy and Practice in Health and Safety is an international journal published twice a year. It's designed as a forum for academic and policy discourse on health and safety and is aimed at those who practise, tutor, research or study health and safety regulation and management. All published papers have undergone a double-blind refereeing process by at least two referees.

    Policy and Practice is an important source of reference for anyone studying or working at a professional level in health and safety. It'll help to keep you up to speed on developing debates on a wide range of topics.

    The editor, David Walters, Professor of Work Environment at the Cardiff Work Environment Research Centre, leads Policy and Practice's authoritative international editorial board. The journal addresses practical workplace health and safety issues as well as focusing on a broader context - the social, economic and political discussions that shape employment and work.

    Subjects covered in recent issues include comparisons of different regulatory and management frameworks, case studies of occupational safety and health in individual locations, and the impact of economic and political factors on health and safety.
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