For TNO employee Karen Oude Hengel, 2017 is off to a good start. In addition to a Veni grant from NWO, she has also received the title of TNO’s ‘excellent researcher of the year 2016’.
Karen Oude Hengel, 35, studied Industrial Design Engineering, Human Movement Sciences and Epidemiology. After visiting the Harvard University as researcher, she obtained her PhD in sustainable employability among construction workers from VU Amsterdam. She is a member of TNO’s Work Health Technology research group since 2008.
What is it you do exactly?
“I research new ways of keeping people healthy and safe at work. This is necessary because of our ageing population; people live longer and have to work longer as a result. Good working conditions are important to ensure the vitality and employability of older and younger workers. And it can also result in significant economic advantages, such as higher productivity and lower sickness absence rates. My research is mainly focused on employees with a lower educational level. Dock workers in the Port of Rotterdam, for example. Their work is mostly very physically demanding and the risks associated with safety issues can be great. Health and safety at work must be a priority. Of course new technologies can be helpful in finding solutions, but people’s needs should always come first. I strongly believe in this, which is why I am so well-suited for this work.”
“I research new ways of keeping people healthy and safe at work. This is necessary because of our ageing population”
Finding the right learning method
Safety is a priority in the Port of Rotterdam. There are strict procedures in place, which significantly limit the risk of accidents. But Karen and her colleagues are looking for even more ways to promote the theme of ‘safety and health in the workplace’. “At the port, safety instructions are usually given in groups”, she explains. “Research has shown that this form of education is not always effective. This is partly due to the fact that the material is not always useful in practice – it may not be specific enough – or because some employees are not particularly motivated to go ‘back to school’. The information then goes in one ear and out the other.”
What improvements can be made?
“In cooperation with innovation platform iTanks and publisher Malmberg, we are developing a digital learning platform called SAM. Workers can take courses on safety and health whenever it suits them. A single learning module only takes ten minutes. So when you’re waiting to get a permit, or for materials to arrive, you can simply grab your phone or tablet and learn more about health and safety at work. We believe this flexibility helps to facilitate more effective knowledge retention. The project is still in the pilot stages, but both employees and managers have already shown a great deal of enthusiasm.”
But for Karen, there’s more success to celebrate. She recently received a Veni grant (a prestigious grant from NWO), which she will be able to use over the next four years to conduct research into the influence of national and international policy and the economic climate on employment rates among chronically ill workers in Europe. She will be using innovative statistic methods in her research. Karen explains: “In recent years, policies have been implemented to help people with chronic illnesses to keep and to continue working. My research will focus if and to what extent these policies have been effective.”
Is it unusual for a TNO employee to receive this Veni grant?
“Yes. This grant is usually awarded to researchers from universities conducting excellent fundamental research in their fields. As an organization, TNO focuses more on applied research. The fact that I was awarded this grant, is also a wonderful show of recognition for TNO as an organization. It is proof that TNO publishes in well-respected journals and that the quality of our scientists is recognized. I hope this will allow us to continue to contribute to a high standard of scientific quality. The Veni grant will allow me to interact with researchers in other networks. TNO will also benefit from my networking efforts.”
“As an organization, TNO focuses more on applied research. The fact that I was awarded this grant, is also a wonderful show of recognition for TNO”
Did the nomination for outstanding TNO researcher surprise you?
“Absolutely. All TNO employees have a say in who is nominated for the award. After all, their vote counts too, in addition to rankings by a jury consisting of principal scientists. My colleagues and I work on societal issues, where technology plays a smaller part than in other research areas. TNO is a technology-driven organization. I think it’s wonderful that our work got noticed and it’s amazing that I am now receiving this award.”
I’ve noticed that you tend to speak in the first person plural a lot.
“I applied for the Veni grant on my own. But I am constantly working with colleagues and partners. Our achievements are the result of teamwork, so it doesn’t feel right to talk about it in the first person singular. Others deserve credit, too.”