8 March 2016

Occupational health and safety and well-being at work must be developed in a determined and systematic manner

The success of the European Union and its Member States is based on competitive industry. Skilled, competent and motivated workforce that can respond to challenges forms the foundation for this competitiveness.

The competitive Europe invests in its workforce by improving occupational health and safety and well-being at work in a determined, systematic manner at the corporate, national and European levels. This requires a consistent view of the industrial and social policy in the European Union. While promoting the improvement of operational preconditions and competitiveness of industry, the working conditions of employees must also be improved.

In recent years in Europe, there has been much concern about the administrative burden on companies caused by legislation and other regulations, which erodes competitiveness. This concern is real and necessary measures must be taken. However, these measures must not lead to a situation in which, for example, the control of occupational safety is not strict and consistent enough in the internal market. This would inevitably result in polarisation: there would be areas and companies that take good care of occupational health and safety and, on the other hand, areas and companies that are unsatisfactory in this respect. The intervention logic of the internal market requires that the central control and regulation of occupational health and safety takes place at the EU level. It cannot be left solely to the national level. The European Union Commission has the major responsibility for the development of occupational health and safety. Further development is still necessary.

Many surveys and the opinions of EU institutions show that, in some respects, occupational safety has developed in a positive direction in Europe. For instance, the number of serious occupational accidents is decreasing in many countries. On the other hand, there are issues that give rise to serious concern. Musculoskeletal disorders significantly shorten careers and burden both the national economy and companies with enormous costs. This problem particularly accumulates among the aging workforce. Psychosocial risks and stress at work are increasing. Chemicals continue to be a significant cause of occupational diseases, particularly sensitisation and cancers. New technologies and materials create new, unknown risks at work. In addition, continuous changes in companies’ operations and structures have a significant impact on employees’ occupational safety and well-being at work. More attention should be paid to the occupational health and safety of employees with fragmented employment relationships. It is also certain that change will continue, both at the macro and micro levels. This is ensured by international competition, digitalisation and the advancement of technology.

Does the European Union have a consistent policy, comprehensive strategy and effective enforcement procedures in place for the protection of employees’ health and safety, now and during future challenges?

The European Union Commission has issued a communication on a strategic framework on health and safety at work for 2014–2020 (COM(2014)0332). Nordic IN finds that the communication focuses on the key issues related to occupational health and safety and the competitiveness of companies. It is particularly important to pay attention to small companies’ possibilities to ensure a high standard of occupational health and safety. However, this concern should not in any circumstances lead to a lowering of the level of occupational safety or a dismantling of the necessary regulations. Employees in companies of all sizes must have an equal right to the best possible occupational safety. Requirements should not be made less strict for small companies, as this would lead to a lower level of occupational safety and unfair competition in the market. The EU and national institutions must support these companies, so that they understand their obligations and know how to fulfil them. According to the survey conducted by EU-OSHA (2015), obligations laid down in legislation constitute the most significant factor affecting companies’ own occupational safety measures.

The Commission’s strategic framework for 2014–2020 requires making and enforcing more detailed strategic decisions without delay. Now the problems and challenges have been brought to light, but they are waiting to be solved. After the publication of the above-mentioned communication, the Council of Ministers and the Parliament have given their report on it. The latest of these is the European Parliament Resolution P8_TA-PROV(2015)0411. In addition, the evaluation of the practical implementation of the EU Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Directives in the EU Member States, ordered by the Commission and conducted by COWI, was published in summer 2015. All of these documents support the opinion that effective measures should be taken without delay to mitigate the above-mentioned risks that pose a threat to occupational safety in the EU now and in the future.

Nordic IN particularly agrees with the opinions presented in the above-mentioned European Parliament Resolution and would like to especially emphasise the following proposals:

  • The quality of occupational safety risk assessment must be enhanced, while every attempt should be made to ensure that the identified risks are addressed. This can be promoted by the Commission reinforcing the obligation of company management to participate in conducting assessments.
  • In particular, work-related musculoskeletal disorders among aging employees will constitute a significant occupational health and safety risk and a financial burden. Therefore, the Commission should adopt the preparation of the legislation concerning this matter on its agenda. At all workplaces, risk mitigation should focus more on ergonomics, working methods and the lifting of heavy objects.
  • A few years ago, the European social partners signed an agreement concerning work-related stress. The effectiveness of this agreement is insignificant. The Comission should assess what kind of binding guidance procedures could be implemented for better monitoring and mitigation of psychosocial risks at workplaces, taking into account the very different origins of these risks. The necessary measures must be taken on the basis of the assessment.
  • The directive concerning carcinogenic substances at workplaces must be revised without delay. The binding force of the substitution principle concerning carcinogenic substances should be increased and the process for preparing binding limit values should be made less complicated, so that the limit value list in the directive can be updated without delay in accordance with increasing research data. Currently, dozens of carcinogenic substances that are widely used at workplaces do not have a limit value.
  • Legislation on nanomaterials is incomplete from the perspective of the employees who manufacture and handle these materials. A significant proportion of these materials have not been registered as nanomaterials, which is why appropriate safety information is not available for them. The safety data sheet often concerns only the standard form of the substance. The Commission must decide how the precautionary principle could be applied to the handling of nanomaterials at work.
  • Endocrine disruptors pose a major risk, both in general and at work. The Commission should prepare a comprehensive strategy for these substances without delay. As part of this work, regulation concerning the use of these substances at work must be examined in order to manage the risks.
  • The Commission must develop procedures to ensure the reliability and consistency of the regulatory supervision of occupational health and safety in all Member States. Appropriate supervision is the only means for ensuring the enforcement of regulations at workplaces.

Nordic IN believes that occupational safety and well-being at work can be promoted in many ways. In order to ensure uniform conditions within the internal market, we need comprehensive and dynamic legislation that is consistent and comprehensible. In addition, we need research and development conducted by institutions of the EU and the Member States, as well as support for small companies.

Furthermore, the social partners must be seen as an important resource for the improvement of occupational health and safety. Good examples of dialogue can be found in different fields, such as the chemical industry. The Responsible Care programme has been adopted as the umbrella for co-operation when improving competitiveness and responsible conduct in the industry.

The European Union must support and encourage increasingly close co-operation between the social partners in all industries. The Commission should develop various incentives to promote the launching of co-operation and to ensure that the work is efficient and resolute. Competitive and responsible business is certainly in the joint interest of the social partners. Promoting occupational health and safety and well-being at work is part of responsible conduct.

Nordic IN expects the European Union to demonstrate target-oriented leadership of occupational health and safety and well-being at work.


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