This article is part of our special report Quo Vadis Health and Safety at Work?.
SPECIAL REPORT / Brussels has postponed the adoption of the European health and safety strategy which since 2002 has allowed member states to move on an equal footing to protect workers. Putting the strategy on the backburner will undermine the sound functioning of the labour market, experts told EURACTIV.
The new European strategy was supposed to be adopted last year for the new period 2013-2020. But so far much of the work in the policy area has been progressing in slow motion.
“The Commission seems to believe that the [Occupational Safety and health] strategy is a luxury in time of economic crisis. What counts for them is [jobs] quantity and not quality and they say that companies cannot be burdened or bothered with it,” said Laurent Vogel, senior researcher at the working conditions unit of the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI).
Earlier this year, in March, the Commission published an evaluation of the European strategy 2007-2012 it had commissioned from the Danish consulting group COWI.
The evaluation is unequivocal in recommending a new strategy for the forthcoming period to ‘further exploit the potential for creating European added value’.
“There is evidence to support the argument that occupational health and safety at work can create benefits which will exceed costs,” reads the paper, which gives a number of recommendations including the need for a new strategy.
A Commission spokesperson stressed that the EU executive has postponed action to undertake an in-depth analysis in order to decide on the next steps and is currently assessing the submissions to the consultation launched over the summer and to which it received over 500 responses.
Evaluation of both previous strategies clearly shows the positive effects both on Occupational Health and Safety systems (OSH) and policies, as well as decrease of work-place accidents, the spokesperson explained. The spokesperson did not say when the next strategy, if any materialises, will be pushed through but "it could be in the Spring of 2014", he added.
Strategy or policy framework
Sources say the paper will not be a strategy, but a policy framework. The Commission’s spokesperson argued that it was too early to say. “In any case the content is more important than the title,” he added.
“What is clear is the message: It [health and safety in the workplace] is obviously not considered as a priority,” Vogel snapped.
It is estimated that every year more than 160,000 workers die because of accidents related to work or an occupational disease.
According to Eurofound, the European Foundation for the improvement of living and working conditions, 20% of jobs in the EU present high risks to the health of job holders.
"Job quality is key to support the sound functioning of labour markets,” say experts at Eurofound, who argue that the strategy contributes to maintain workers’ capacity to remain fully engaged and prevent a premature exclusion from the labour market.
“For companies they prevent costs related to absenteeism,” reads the submission to the consultation of Eurofound, which underscores that the cost of work-related stress alone (source INRS) is estimated between 0.1% and 2.6% of GDP.
There is evidence that MSDs (musculoskeletal disease) may be increasing and this raises concerns, continues the Dublin-based agency, adding that the same trend could be seen for psycho-social risks, including stress-related diseases.
“A healthy workforce is a more productive workforce,” insists Eurofound. In its latest report, Eurofound states that in the EU28, 20% of workers (18% of men and 22% of women) score high on ‘mental health risk’ which highlights a growing need for attention to be paid to mental well-being in the workplace.
REFIT in the way?
Experts point the finger at the REFIT smart regulation paper, which the European Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, presented last October, as a way to cut red tape and administrative burdens so that companies can invest and create jobs, and growth.
“Can you imagine a government which announces that it is going to block all the new rules on health and safety at work, saying that there are too many rules, that all these safety rules designed to protect workers are damaging the employers […]. We have never heard such nonsense," said Herman Fonck, from the Belgian Christian Trade Union CSC-ACV.
Fonck is referring to the fact that two major legislative initiatives in the policy of health and safety at work – Musculoskeletal Disorders and work-related cancers – have been dropped from the Commission’s work plan and will not be tabled in the current mandate.
“The whole machinery of Europe has ground to a standstill in matters of occupational safety,” added Fonck.
Slippery slope towards renationalisation
Unions fear that this will be a slippery slope towards renationalisation of health and safety policy and legislation.
“If we go towards a renationalisation there will be huge gaps between countries,” said Vogel.
Even if there is no EU strategy, some countries will maintain a high-level of protection in their national policies. That would be the case for Belgium, the Netherlands, France and Denmark, added Vogel. But for others it is clear that the EU strategy was the driver for national strategies, he continued.
In its submission to the consultation the Dutch ministry of employment and social affairs stressed that although the European labour legislation is well developed, new risks such as nanotechnology need further regulation.
“There is a risk that if the European Commission is no longer progressing according to the state of technology and science, the member states will be obliged to take action (again) at the national level. That would run counter to the desired level playing fields," reads the Dutch contribution.