Cutting workplace accidents and diseases to zero – Claes-Mikael Ståhl – Social Europe

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politics, economy and employment & labour

The pandemic has focused attention on health and safety. But workers were already dying just trying to make a living.
Every day, on average, accidents at work kill at least nine people in the European Union, while more than three million suffer significant injuries every year. There were 3,332 fatal work-related accidents in the EU-27 in 2018, plus 3.1 million non-fatal accidents, forcing victims to stay off work—numbers up on the previous year. And every year some 120,000 workers contract cancer as a direct consequence of their jobs, leading to 80,000 deaths, while countless more endure chronic work-related pain or stress.
Behind these statistics lie families where mothers or fathers, brothers or sisters, daughters or sons leave for work and either never come home or suffer prolonged pain and distress. This should not happen. People should not be putting their lives at risk at work and there is no acceptable rate of workplace accidents. That is why the European Trade Union Confederation continues to insist on ‘vision zero’ and an end to work-related deaths, accidents and diseases.
It is encouraging that the European commissioner for jobs and social rights, Nicolas Schmit, has embraced the principle of vision zero on work-related accidents. The ETUC welcomed this aspect of the European Commission’s new Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work 2021-2027, published last June, as well as its greater focus on the gender dimension of workplace health and safety.
But while having a vision is a fine thing, turning it into reality makes all the difference. Europe’s vision zero needs a broad approach, which should cover all work-related accidents and diseases and establish a culture of prevention. Occupational health and safety (OSH) is a policy area where the EU can have an important impact: it has the legal competence to establish rules and impose laws bringing real change to workplaces.
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The European Pillar of Social Rights guarantees workers’ right to ‘a high level of protection of their health and safety at work’. My mission, and that of the ETUC in the coming years, will be to ensure the EU makes concrete progress towards ending work-related accidents and illnesses.
Vision zero forms a natural alliance with existing EU policy and legislative strategy. The principle of prevention of risk was already a pillar of the 1989 Framework Directive on OSH.
All member states should develop and implement national vision-zero plans, bringing them into line with EU regulations. A first step is recognition of the employer’s responsibility to formulate and implement a systematic OSH plan to prevent accidents, in thorough consultation with trade unions—allied to strong social dialogue, regulation and enforcement.
The EU and member states should be more proactive on risk prevention and elimination, by raising awareness, stressing the obligation of employers to take appropriate preventive measures to make work safer and healthier, and sharing good practices. Better reporting and analysis to examine the underlying causes of work-related accidents, such as lack of or inadequate safety measures, would be a good start. 
Unless enforcement is a priority, vision zero will be hard to reach. The ETUC welcomes the commission’s pressure on member states to step up enforcement measures but is calling for a dedicated working party to offer advice.
Enforcement depends on regular workplace inspections in all sectors, in collaboration with trade union health-and-safety representatives. Labour inspectorates need more resources, training and support, because the number of inspections across the EU is falling. Member states must meet the International Labour Organization benchmark of a minimum of one labour inspector per 10,000 workers. And when safety measures are found to be inadequate, sanctions need to have real bite.
The ETUC is calling for specific action in areas such as the response to Covid-19, the use of dangerous substances, musculoskeletal disorders, stress and psychosocial risks, and violence and harassment at work. The pandemic has multiplied the already wide array of health risks—physical and psychological—for many categories of workers, including carers, health and transport workers.
Research shows that the job insecurity and loss of income associated with the coronavirus crisis have disproportionately affected the most vulnerable sectors of the workforce, while widespread ‘telework’ has blurred the boundary between work and home life, placing extra pressures on women in particular.
While work-related stress has been on the rise in Europe for years, a representative study carried out in Belgium after lockdown found that almost half of all workers reported anxiety and depression. Employers and unions agree that the Framework Directive is not adequate to combat work-related stress and burnout, and the ETUC and its member organisations have long called for a directive on psychosocial risks.
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Cancer is responsible for 53 per cent of occupational deaths in the EU each year. The EU needs to be more ambitious in legislating to combat work-related cancer, adopting a risk-based approach rather than treating the protection of workers as a cost.
The ETUC welcomed the proposed revision of the directive on carcinogens and mutagens at work, to be voted on early this year by the European Parliament and Council of the EU: it should inter alia protect workers against damage to their reproductive systems. But limits have yet to be imposed on 25 high-risk, cancer-causing substances. Vision zero should also guide the commission’s decision on reauthorising the use of the herbicide glyphosate in Europe and the removal of asbestos.
Millions across Europe suffer from work-related musculo-skeletal disorders (MSDs), such as back pain and repetitive strain injury. Although preventable, they remain the most common work-related health problem: some three in every five workers in the EU report MSD complaints, which can severely damage an individual’s quality of life and ability to work, leading to sick leave, disability and early retirement. All workers need to be protected and employers required to identify risk factors.
Some groups of workers are however particularly exposed to risks, whether physical or psychosocial, including women, migrant workers and LGBT+ individuals, while age, education and disability are also factors. The diversity of the workforce and the specific needs of workers must be considered when assessing risks and designing preventative measures, and the 2019 ILO convention against violence and harassment at work needs to be enforced across the EU.
Finally, the commission must be prepared for new risks—arising, for example, from climate change, platform work or artificial intelligence and digitalisation. The ETUC welcomes the commission’s recognition of Covid-19 as an occupational disease but recent events demonstrate that rules need to be updated to tackle any future pandemic.
The vision-zero approach should be the compass of future EU policy on OSH, and the social partners should be properly involved in designing and implementing sound health-and-safety measures at all levels. Trade unions make workplaces safer and union activities to promote improvement in EU rules are crucial.
The EU’s objective must be to improve the lives of working people and OSH is one area where it can make a difference. Through the ETUC, trade unions are working together to press for a Europe without occupational accidents and diseases, via concrete action to ensure all workers enjoy the right to a safe and healthy working environment.
Claes-Mikael Ståhl has been deputy general secretary at the European Trade Union Confederation since September 2021. He deals with trade, mobility, employment, cohesion funds and occupational health and safety.
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