EU decision-makers have done far too little on safety in the workplace

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

ETUC backs EU on "Healthy Workplaces for all ages" […]

The challenges facing Europe today, to tackle climate change and to create new sustainable jobs, give us an opportunity to also improve people’s working lives and health, argues Rudy De Leeuw on the International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD).

Rudy De Leeuw is the president of the European Trade Union Confederation.

As trade unionists, whenever we talk to our members about the issues that concern them directly, health and safety in the workplace comes high on their list of priorities. Workplace hazards are the quiet killers that can impact on people’s quality of life long into the future.

Every year on April 28, International Workers’ Memorial Day (IWMD), we in the ETUC and our affiliated unions count the cost of another 12 months of risky working conditions and inadequate safety precautions.

In 2012 (the last time the EU collected figures), 3,515 people died as a result of workplace accidents in Europe. A further 100,000 perish every year from cancers contracted at work. These shocking figures are unacceptable in a European Union which claims to safeguard its citizens’ wellbeing.

EU decision-makers have done far too little in recent years to tackle this situation. For example, a Directive on carcinogens and mutagens has been under review for some 12 years without any improvements.

Another deeply disappointing failure has been the European Commission’s refusal to legislate on the agreement on hairdressers’ health and safety, reached between employers and trade unions back in 2012.

According to the Commission itself, hairdressing brings a 10-times greater risk of contracting occupational skin diseases than any other profession, largely due to the chemicals that are in daily use. In some countries up to 70% of hairdressers suffer from work-related skin damage, such as dermatitis, during their careers, and overall the rate of back pain is five times higher than the average.

Indeed, it would be a big mistake to assume that health and safety is an issue only for manufacturing and industrial workers.

Here in Belgium, for example, according to figures from the National Institute for Health and Disability Insurance (INAMI/RIZIV), psychological disorders are the leading cause of disability affecting 93,000 workers or former workers: a 70% increase since 2005.

Across Europe, more than three-quarters of establishments report at least one psychosocial hazard, including difficult clients or pupils or time pressures, and more than one-third do not have the resources to assess the risks.

Evidence shows that work-related health hazards are not equally distributed. In Greece, for example, 72% of workers reported increased stress due to job losses and financial hardship. Some 41% suffered sleeping disorders because of anxiety about their job security.

On IWMD 2016, the ETUC is calling for determined action to protect workers, including tougher EU and national legislation. We believe strong laws are vital to the welfare of workers. Legislation is the key driver of progress: according to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), it is the incentive for action among 85% of EU employers.

Research by Eurofound shows that between 2010 and 2015, levels of workplace exposure to chemicals and infectious materials rose. As a result of pressure from trade unions, the Commission has promised progress on protecting workers from cancer, and we are watching carefully to ensure that EU leaders will deliver on this pledge. We are demanding binding workplace exposure limits for 50 of the most common cancer-causing agents at work – at the moment only five are covered.

We are also demanding action to tackle new and emerging hazards such as nanoparticles, as well as musculoskeletal disorders like neck, back and wrist pain, and psychosocial risks including stress, violence and harassment.

We will not allow the Commission to use its ‘better regulation’ agenda to dismantle vital health and safety protection for workers. Employees must have a right to be involved in defining and implementing health and safety policy at workplace and company level, and to information and consultation on conditions affecting their health and wellbeing. The EU must guarantee legal protection for these fundamental rights.

The challenges facing Europe today, to tackle climate change and to create new sustainable jobs, give us an opportunity to also improve people’s working lives and health. After all we should be working for a living, not putting our lives at risk.

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