Summary of the European conference on Workers and creativity: How to improve working conditions by participative methods” organised by FEES, ETUI, BES and CREE and held in Brussels on 26-27 June 2017

The conference “Workers and creativity: How to improve working conditions by participative methods” organised jointly by the Federation of European Ergonomics Societies (FEES), the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), the Belgian Ergonomics Society (BES) and the Centre for Registration of European Ergonomics (CREE) with the support of the International Ergonomics Association (IEA) was attended by around one hundred participants, including ergonomists, union officials, company doctors and H&S officers.

BES LogoThis conference saw some twenty papers being given by European experts in the field of ergonomics and industrial relations, presenting a panorama of working conditions in Europe and pointing to ways of developing participative approaches to unleash the creativity of workers and organisations (cf. the summary of each presentation on the FEES and ETUI

The conference was the result of a European-level cooperation between the four organisations (FEES, ETUI, BES and CREE), with the support and participation of the IEA and the presence of the European bodies involved.  Three sessions were dedicated to reviewing the state of play with regard to working conditions in Europe, presenting examples of ways of transforming working conditions and triggering creativity through participating workers. The sessions were interspersed by presentations given by ergonomists and workers’ representatives.

State of play

Following the welcoming speeches of the organisers, the European Commission’s representative Mario GABRIELLI COSSELLU,  from DG Growth gave a presentation on the legislative framework in force at EU level, stressing that the so-called “New Approach” directives were not that rigid: based on basic health & safety requirements, the legislation was open to innovation and worker creativity resulting from their practical experience in production and in the use of facilities, in particular from a working conditions point of view and the associated ergonomic aspects. The “machinery” directive in particular contained clauses related to ergonomics, and the “feedback method” (presented during this conference) was producing very encouraging results based on workers’ participation.
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Agnès PARENT-THIRION, researcher at the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound)  presented several key findings of the sixth European Working Conditions Survey conducted in 2015 in 35 countries and focused on the quality of work, an aspect which has many dimensions, including the physical environment, work intensity, working hours, the social environment, etc. and the implementation of certain forms of “discretion” (supervised autonomy at work). This survey thus helped identify different profiles representing different types of jobs from a quality of work perspective. For more information:
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Patricia VENDRAMIN, sociologist from the Université Catholique de Louvain presented her work on ageing and working conditions in Belgium, referring to the data from the previously presented European survey: the general finding was that keeping people in work was becoming increasingly difficult due to workforce ageing and the wish to progressively reduce working time to compensate for difficult working conditions. Again, autonomy in organising work was seen as a factor favouring sustainable work. This survey underlined the wish, present in all age groups, to stop working at 60 (60% of those surveyed), with factors favouring sustainable work including work autonomy, possibilities of expressing one’s opinion, the support of line management and career opportunities.
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Teresa COTRIM, professor of ergonomics at the University of Lisbon, presented data on workforce ageing in Portugal, based mainly on a survey of cemetery workers in Lisbon. This questionnaire-based participative survey took place in three steps: training sessions for members of the health & safety department, their gathering of data, and a discussion of the results and recommendations with all participants. The main recommendations for developing work aptitude were: the management of emotions and conflicts, teamwork, the prevention of MSD risks, preventive maintenance of gravediggers’ equipment, the redesign of cemetery layouts and acknowledgement of the social role of gravediggers. The overall conclusion was that there was no comprehensive health & safety culture.
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Henrijs KALKIS, ergonomist and professor at the  University of Riga in Latvia, gave a presentation on the main characteristics of Latvian working conditions, where a major rise in MSD cases has been registered over the past ten years. Among the various causes of bad working conditions, such as work processes involving difficult handling and stressful working postures, or the lack of worker involvement in decision-making, he highlighted the lack of understanding among companies and managers about what a “safety culture” means.  He insisted on the role of management and management methods (in particular lean management) for ensuring favourable working conditions from a health point of view, and for promoting employee creativity.
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Risto TOIVONEN, an ergonomist from the Finnish Ergonomics Society, described working conditions in Finland – similar to those found in the other Nordic states – on the basis of the Eurofound survey and national statistics. These were characterised by possibilities to learn at work and implement new ideas, by flexible working hours and moderate work intensity (but also by frequent interruptions of tasks and disturbing emotional situations), by fair treatment and help and support from line management and colleagues. In terms of the physical environment, the main problems were noise, low temperatures and repetitive movements.
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Winding up this first session, José Orlando GOMESergonomist and IEA vice-president, highlighted the need to design workplaces and situation matching individual workers, whatever their characteristics – older workers, young workers – and not to go for one-size-fits-all solutions. This necessity for a comprehensive approach meant a lot of work for ergonomists. He outlined the framework model promoted by the IEA, which Yushi Fujita would be going into in his presentation. Moving forward in an upward spiral, this model’s point of departure is science (comprising the generalisation, the definition of principles, new paradigms, etc.). From there it moves on to practice (analysing and solving problems, checking, unearthing new problems, standardisation, etc.), before returning to science via the new problems and new hypotheses.

Worker participation

Fabio STRAMBI, ETUI adviser for ergonomics and standardisation, and Massimo BARTALINI, from Tuscany local health unit USL presented worker participation in Italy, focusing on the design of machines using the “feedback method”. Within the context of implementing the Machinery Directive, the authors developed a methodology for the feedback of on-the-ground experience. Basing their work on European and global standards (in particular EN 614 and ISO 12 100) and on ergonomic principles, the two researchers mobilised the competences of workers allowed to express their criticism and suggestions regarding the design of different types of machinery (for example mobile machines, seat restraints, or manual or foot-operated control devices) with a view to improving technical standards. The methodology and the results of this approach are available in a CEN document (TR 1670-1) and on the Ergomach website:
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Eloïse GALIOOT & Ludovic PONGE, ergonomics consultants in France, presented their thoughts emerging from the “staff representatives and risk prevention” (RP2) commission of the SELF on the relationship between ergonomists and workers’ representatives on the basis of expert reports compiled at the request of staff representatives. This specifically French scheme allows various resources in and outside a company to be mobilised. Using two examples, one from an abattoir and one from a branch of a bank, the authors showed how it is possible, starting out with a favourable context, using on-the-ground observations and moving on to design an intervention, to develop worker discretion and exploit their know-how and that of the CHSCT, the representative body responsible in companies for health and safety. In both cases, it proved possible to argue in favour of sustainable changes in the way work was organised.
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David WALTERS, a sociologist from the University of Cardiff in the United Kingdom, presented the results of his research, conducted as part of the ESENER survey, into workers’ involvement as practised in different EU countries. In his view, there were two distinct types of involvement – direct and indirect (via the employee representation body).  His finding was that the latter’s involvement in health and safety matters helped improve workplace health and company performance. For such representation to be effective, certain pre-conditions had to be met: regulatory measures, a committed management, regulatory inspections, workers’ support and union support for representatives. However, management moves were increasingly tending to side-line employee representation bodies and turn them away from their representation role, resulting in a decline in the support provided by staff representatives, the introduction of behaviour-based safety (BBS) systems and staff fragmentation.  The emergence of this “New orthodoxy” needed to be discussed within the trade union movement.
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ETUI jobsETUI researcher Tony MUSU, presented the union cooperation project on occupational cancers, looking at the case of chemical products. Based on a network of some 40 union experts, most of them members of European Advisory Committee on Health and Safety at Work or the European Trade Union Committee on Safety and Health at Work, an information, coordination and training project had been carried out, resulting in the design and conduct of action campaigns in various EU member states. Union proposals for preventing occupational cancers had been formulated, such as promoting policies for substituting carcinogenic agents, the systematic collection of data or the introduction of a consistent regulatory framework in this field.
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Xabier IRASTORZA, a researcher working at the  European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) presented “workers’ involvement in health and safety at work: results of the ’European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER) - The case of MSDs”. 

Conducted in 36 countries in 2014 and involving interviews with people with knowledge of working conditions within companies (managers and employees involved in health and safety), the survey provides data on the main risks confronting companies and what they are doing about them. With regard to preventing MSD risks for example, the promotion of such measures as introducing appropriate equipment, organising working time or job rotations is significantly higher in companies with an employee representation body.
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What about creativity?

IEAYushi FUJITA, ergonomics professor and consultant in Japan and president of the IEA, expounded the characteristics of this discipline at the crossroads of science and practice and aimed at improving performance and well-being. Based on his project experience in industry with regard to such questions as alarm management or the introduction of robots, his finding was that engineers had too little knowledge of shop-floor conditions and needed to know more. This was why it was necessary to develop “translations”, i.e. processes establishing links between humans and machines. This was what ergonomics was all about – the science of developing a coherent symbiosis to promote creativity. Winding up his presentation, Yushi Fujita put forward the following suggestions for developing ergonomics: widen its scientific base, go beyond its traditional frontiers (out of the box), contribute to reducing costs, and change traditional design and regulatory approaches through a long-term strategy.
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Giulio TOCCAFONDI, responsible for quality within the Clinical Risk Management Unit at the Tuscan Regional Authority in Italy, presented his thoughts on “creativity in practice”, referring to the factors he saw as influencing innovation in Italy. His finding was that routine tasks at work were decreasing, while at the same time intellectual and social activities, as well as those linked to the new communication technologies, were increasing. Creativity could be defined in two ways: “internal”, i.e. via a mental process in an individual; and “interactive”, a process triggered by external suggestions, via interactions with objects, other persons or operations. Confronted with creativity, ergonomics had to be aware of both the problems and opportunities it generated. The role of ergonomics was thus to encourage the development of creativity by introducing into work a certain sustainable degree of chance and uncertainty permitting creativity. All these issues would play a leading role at the IEA Congress, to be staged next year in August 2018 by the Italian Ergonomics Society in Florence.
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Bénédicte MOUTIN, Secretary General of the French CFDT union, presented the results of the “Parlons travail” survey conducted in 2016 in France in companies where the CFDT is represented. Given that the public debate has little to do with work, a large-scale survey was decided and conducted with the support of researchers. Some 200,000 people responded online. This survey revealed the great need for employee involvement and greater democracy at work. In the view of the respondents, quality of life at work was a fundamental issue and they yearned for greater autonomy in their work. Certain negative aspects were emphasised: the large amount of time spent on reporting or the little consideration shown by managers for their subordinates. An agreement has been reached that the data collected during the “Parlons travail” survey is going to be made available to researchers, who will in return present their research findings to the CFDT. The process will end with the compilation of a CFDT “Manifesto for work”.
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Théo MOULIERES-SEBAN, an engineering researcher working for  Safran, the French aviation company, gave a paper entitled “the cobots, questions related to working together with robots”. In his research on the introduction of collaborative robots (“cobots”) in industry, he found that, due to the fact that normative supervision had evolved, interactions between robots and operators was now possible. What was now needed was to develop the criteria for participative design, taking account of safety requirements through formalising the work of the operators and defining use scenarios via simulations. In a concrete situation, that of cleaning a tank, he had established a working group made up of operators, supervisors, the project leader, a methods officer and the head of maintenance. This had been able to analyse the work and come up with a simulation of what the work would look like in the future, with the operator working together with a robot. The technical specifications, system roll-out, training courses, etc. have since been defined. The process is now in the course of being implemented.
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Steve BARRACLOUGH, head of the UK Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors, gave a paper entitled “Stronger together: human factors, safety and productivity”. This presented the results of research covering 1000 professionals and companies on their perception of automation and robotics and the associated shop-floor reality. The main results of this survey are as follows: 47% of workers in industry are of the opinion that there has been an increase in the automation of their working environment over the past few years. The majority of companies (66%) responded that they had automated their processes, while 74% of professionals anticipated that the degree of automation would rise in the future. Against this background, ergonomists could show their skills, but would have to be even more flexible, inventive and available to make sure that work and working conditions improved, both for employers and workers, demonstrating their ability to achieve a symbiosis between workers and automation.
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The main points debated during the conference

Numerous issues were raised and discussed during this conference:

  • That of the conditions necessary for involving operators. For involvement to be effective, operators’ training reality and acceptance of technological change needed to be aligned with management’s acceptance of suggestions coming from them. They needed opportunities to voice their opinions and be heard, with the latter reflected in changes in the short or medium term.
  • That of highlighting these real-life experiences of industrial democracy in the social debate: is industrial democracy just an island or is the issue being dealt with more broadly in society, for example in regional or national employers’ associations, in trade unions or by local health authorities? 
  • That of extending such actions to professional sectors at a national or even EU level in terms of including best practices, training and/or change management aspects in regulations (or technical norms) covering health and safety or social dialogue.
  • That of the link between direct and indirect participation via employee representation bodies: was it antagonistic or complementary? Did it fuel the debate on the role of representative bodies specialised in health and safety at work? 
  • That of the link between discussions on workplace creativity and the introduction of new technologies such as collaborative robots or new ICT developments in companies and their rapid uptake by society: were these parallel developments dominated by market logic or by evolution, were they properly controlled, were they based on shared and debated principles, were prevention strategies available, had the social utility of the technologies been debated? 
  • That of national contexts (technological, social, cultural) which still required an in-depth exchange of information between scientists (especially ergonomists), trade unionists and company heads to overcome linguistic and cultural barriers and ultimately to arrive at a true understanding with shared perceptions. This had been seen in the different aspects and points of view presented during the conference, including ergonomics, worker involvement, creativity, automation, etc.

FFES LogoWinding up,  Sylvain LEDUC, president of the FEES, emphasised that these papers demonstrated the effects of work, both real and represented. For instance, the often-harmful side-effects of work were still present, though in a different form and with a better picture of the costs involved. These papers also provided an overview of the know-how available in the field of ergonomics, but without necessarily taking account of ergonomists’ knowledge. Moreover, with regard to worker involvement, two questions needed to be raised: Was this a case of representative involvement – i.e. aiming to effectively involve the workers concerned – or a case of participatory representation – i.e.  bringing together those with a representative function in social dialogue?

Beyond that, it seemed that this problem of creativity and worker involvement required certain pre-conditions to be defined: the development of methods for updating real-life work processes, with a view to upgrading the key determinants of creativity. More work needed to be put into defining the shape of future work on the one hand and the future of work and how it is organised on the other hand. In this context, automation raised the question of how production was organised. But what was really at stake was the issue of work transformation and the need for worker involvement to arrive at solutions helping to improve working conditions. Two paths needed to be explored: that of new forms of management involving “particreativity” and that of the scope of simulation for coping with uncertainty and unexpected situations. But one question remained: how to go beyond regulation – the limits of which were clearly seen, leading it to be questioned – and get company decision-makers to take account of shop-floor reality.

Pascal Etienne, FEES Secretary General
17 July 2017