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Document 52001AE0937

Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on "Request by the European Commission for the Committee to draw up an exploratory opinion in anticipation of the Commission Communication on health and safety at work"

OJ C 260, 17.9.2001, p. 97–104 (ES, DA, DE, EL, EN, FR, IT, NL, PT, FI, SV)


Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on "Request by the European Commission for the Committee to draw up an exploratory opinion in anticipation of the Commission Communication on health and safety at work"

Official Journal C 260 , 17/09/2001 P. 0097 - 0104

Opinion of the Economic and Social Committee on "Request by the European Commission for the Committee to draw up an exploratory opinion in anticipation of the Commission Communication on health and safety at work"

(2001/C 260/18)

On 12 December 2000, in a letter by Commissioner Diamantopoulou, the Commission requested the Economic and Social Committee, under Article 262 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, to draw up an exploratory opinion in anticipation of the above-mentioned communication.

The Section for Employment, Social Affairs and Citizenship, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 20 June 2001. The rapporteur was Mr Etty and the co-rapporteur was Mrs Schweng.

At its 383rd plenary session of 11 and 12 July 2001 (meeting of 11 July), the Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 123 votes to 1, with four abstentions.

1. Introduction

1.1. The Nice summit adopted the European social agenda for the years to come and outlined, under the heading "Anticipating and capitalising on change in the working environment by creating a new balance between flexibility and security", that the Commission should develop the Community strategy on health and safety at work on the basis of a Communication. The Council also outlined the cornerstones for this new strategy:

- to consolidate, adapt and, where appropriate, simplify existing standards;

- to respond to new risks such as work-related stress, by initiatives on standards and exchanges of good practice;

- to promote the application of legislation in SMEs, taking into account the special constraints to which they are exposed, to apply them by means of a specific programme;

- to develop, from 2001 onwards, exchanges of good practice and collaboration between labour inspection institutions in order to satisfy the common essential requirements more effectively.

1.1.1. Furthermore, under the heading "More and better jobs" it was stated that in its employment policy it wants to focus more on attaining quality in work and its importance for growth as a significant attractive factor and as an incentive to work. The Commission should pay attention to the contribution of employment policy to quality of work (in particular as regards, among others, health and safety).

1.2. As the European Commission has asked the Economic and Social Committee to give an own-initiative opinion on a new strategy of safety and health at work, the Committee would like to draw attention to its opinion adopted in December 1999(1), where the following questions were raised:

- How can European health and safety legislation be made more effective?

- How can the link between employability and health and safety be strengthened?

- How can new health and safety risks be dealt with?

1.2.1. Answers given to these questions explored in particular the way in which the EU's non-legislative role should be better promoted and highlighted, without prejudicing the EU's legislative role. Information and awareness campaigns, reference material, training, bench marking, and research have been addressed in this connection, in particular as regards the link between health and safety at work and employability on the one hand, and the way new risks should be addressed on the other.

1.3. While the Commissioner makes an explicit reference in her request to the December 1999 Opinion, she asks the Committee to help her develop ideas on "what role legislation could play alongside other measures such as the social dialogue, soft law - interpretative communications and guides, particularly on new health hazards - information campaigns, etc.".

1.3.1. Therefore, the present Opinion is meant to be complementary to the earlier one.

1.4. Considering the rate of work accidents as an indicator of the situation, the most recent statistics published by Eurostat are quite encouraging.

1.4.1. The figures show that there has been a clear downward trend in work-related accidents with more than three days absence between 1994 and 1996: they decreased by 3,3 %. The reduction in fatal accidents by more than 13 % is even more remarkable. Recent statistics produced by Eurostat indicate that this trend might be stagnating for the period 1996/1998, and that the increased level of economic activity did not translate in an increase of work-related accidents. While noting these trends, the Committee remains worried over the figures which remain very high in absolute terms: 4,7 million people were victims of work related accidents in 1996, i.e. more than 3,6 % of the working population, and more than 5500 people died as a result of a work-related accident. Another point of major concern is the large difference found between Member States.

1.4.2. On the other hand one must take into account that Eurostat data do not shed much light on the so-called new risks, like stress, repetitive strain injury (RSI) and musculo-sckeletal disorders (MSD). The trends measured by Eurostat must be complemented with the findings of the Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working conditions in their 2000 Third European Survey, based on interviews with 21000 workers from all Member States(2). While workers' perceptions of their health and safety being at risk due to occupational activities has shown an improvement in the period 1990-2000, an increasing proportion is reporting work related health problems. Musculo-sceletal disorders and overall fatigue are on the rise whereas stress remains at the same level, as in the 1995 survey. The Foundation thinks that it has also identified a trend, based on three surveys since 1990: working conditions are not improving. Findings in the Foundation's survey have been corroborated by national labour statistics of certain Member States, e.g. as regards RSI.

2. General remarks

2.1. The Community's strategy for health and safety at work should make a major contribution to the Nice summit's objective of creating better jobs as well as more jobs. That objective requires more to be done to improve the working environment, in particular by managing those old and new hazards which are the most risk for workers' health. It also requires that the Community's occupational health and safety strategy address not only the effects of work on health, but also the effects of health on work, for example making reasonable adjustments to the working environment to enable disabled people to return to and participate in the labour market.

2.2. As new technologies, new products and new industries develop rapidly, the Community needs to have a strategy in place, which should look forward as well as back, and should enable people to manage new risks safely. In addition to researching into past events and existing illnesses, and managing traditional hazards through prohibitions, restrictions and substitution, the Community needs to have a strategy in place to address the hazards of the future.

2.3. To respond more effectively to the views of the citizens of Europe that corporate responsibility for health and safety is a major issue, the Community 's strategy needs to focus on more than just compliance with minimum health and safety standards as set out in Directives. It should take measures to encourage employers, workers and others to go beyond compliance, and put their commitment to better jobs and healthier working environments into practice, devoting particular attention to the new risks related to atypical employment or to work which is contracted out. This objective can mainly be achieved by raising the awareness of the fact that "good health and safety is good business"(3). Guidance for the development of mechanisms (including corporate responsibility for health and safety) that stimulate employers to develop their own procedures for improving the quality of working life is of utmost importance.

2.4. The issue of health and safety is too important to be left only to the experts, professionals and public authorities. Employers and workers should be given more responsibility and control over the health and safety system in Europe, and that should be reflected in the importance which health and safety has in the thinking and actions of politicians. This requires mainstreaming of health and safety issues into other policy areas, in particular the internal market, as well as training and awareness raising through the European Social Fund. There is therefore a need to take a stand on views expressed in relation to these other fields.

3. Specific remarks

3.1. Legislative measures

3.1.1. As regards legislative measures the Committee maintains that the European Commission must have a balanced policy combining legislative and non-legislative measures. It acknowledges that the legislative role of the Commission continues to be important, and endorses the Commission's role of assessing and monitoring the way legislation is implemented and to suggest improvements.

3.1.2. Assessment of the application of Directives All directives in the field of health and safety require the member states to notify the measures applied when implementing European legislation into national law and practice and to report after some time (four or five years in most of the cases) on the implementation of the application of the Directives. The Committee stresses the importance of these national reports and considers that they should be an important starting point for any amendment of directives. In order to fulfil this function adequately, the Committee considers it to be essential that the national reports include the views of national workers and employers organisations and should be discussed with them before being sent to the European Commission. The Commission should draw a synthesis report of the national reports and submit this synthesis report to the tripartite Advisory Committee on Safety Hygiene and Health in Luxembourg. The Luxembourg Committee will then be given the opportunity to adopt an opinion on the content of the synthesis report. The Economic and Social Committee wishes to draw the Commission's attention to the opinion adopted by the Advisory Committee in 1999 on the implementation of directives. This procedure will help to decide if amendments of existing legislation are necessary, if workers (e.g. domestic servants, armed forces, police or specific civil protection services) still excluded from the scope of the framework directive should be included, or if certain exemptions are still justified. The Committee wishes to stress, that the legal control of the implementation measures is just one part of the exercise and that, in order to have an overall picture of the implementation in the Member States, it is also necessary to assess in a concrete and practical way the implementation at the workplaces. The Committee considers that this requires involvement and commitment of all actors concerned (public authorities, social partners, management and employee representatives) at all levels (EU, national, company, interprofessional and sectoral).

3.1.3. Measures to raise the effectiveness of legislation The Committee dedicated a large part of its earlier mentioned Own Initiative Opinion to the question how European legislation can be made more effective, especially as regards new risks which require new approaches. The Committee recalls how responsibility could be shared between national and European level: At the European level:

- more focused objectives;

- definition of the arrangements for monitoring and assessing the success of the objective;

- establish - with the help of the relevant sectors - what tools are available (research, practical solutions, information campaigns);

- decide how to involve the social partners. At the national level:

- establish - with the help of the relevant sectors - certain implementation arrangements, according to certain target groups and activities;

- establish monitoring and inspection arrangements and procedures;

- inform and educate employers and employees, in cooperation with the social partners. In this connection, the Committee stresses once more the importance at all levels, from primary schools upwards, of education and training for the raising of risk awareness and the promotion of a prevention culture. Furthermore, special attention should be paid to the training of management, in particular of smaller business, and workers in order to enable them better to fulfil the responsibilities given to them under the framework Directive. European Social Fund means could be used for this purpose.

3.1.4. Completing the legislation As indicated above, there is a need to create the framework for greater corporate understanding of their responsibility and therefore commitment to health and safety, and in a number of areas, the Commission's strategy for securing better jobs will require improvements in the infrastructure of health and safety, such as rehabilitation and occupational health services. Despite the existing legislation on specific hazards, there are still areas where the legislation needs to be improved or extended, and areas where specific legislation is needed, in addition to the general requirements of the Framework Directive. As well as assessing the implementation of existing Directives, the Commission needs to have regard to reports from the Bilbao Agency, Dublin Foundation, and others, which indicate where problems exist. Examples of such issues are asbestos, noise, vibration and harassment, where legislation is already being prepared, repetitive and monotonous work, and non-ionising radiation. Here the Committee would refer to its opinion of 8 December 1999, which calls for a prior social and economic assessment of proposed legislation.

3.1.5. Simplification and codification of the legislation The Committee endorses the Commission's intention to codify and simplify, when necessary, the European directives in the field of safety and health. In this regard, the Committee considers that the identification of the legal provisions that should be subject to simplification should primarily result from the discussions on the assessment of the concrete application of the directives. As the Commission itself has stated earlier, codification and simplification must not change the substance of existing instruments but rather contribute to improve the structure and transparency of occupational health and safety legislation as well as to the reduction of unnecessary red tape. Simplification and codification should not be restricted to the European level, but also be undertaken of the Member State level in order to reach the same objective.

3.2. Soft law and other non-legislative measures

3.2.1. The Committee stresses the importance of not only a consolidated European legislative framework but also of non-legislative measures designated to assist both employers and employees in the practical implementation of health and safety at the work place. Particular interest should be paid in the context to small and medium sized enterprises (SME).

3.2.2. Point of departure has always been and continues to be that there is no reason to exempt SMEs from health and safety legislation, but that every possible effort must be made to help them to comply with it and to promote it at their workplaces. Training for employers and workers is of crucial importance in this respect. The Committee also considers that there is a need for a health and safety culture to be established through awareness training programmes for these enterprises, which often do require tailor-made help and a sector-specific approach. The social partners, in particular those organisations at branch level, have a special role to play in creating such training programmes, which should be co-financed through the European Social Fund.

3.2.3. The Committee therefore welcomes the reference to a special SME-programme in the Social Policy agenda designed to promote the application of legislation in SMEs and taking into account the special constraints to which they are exposed. The Committee, however, considers that SMEs should not be seen as a homogeneous category. Optimisation of actions developed for SMEs require further differentiation according to the size and the sector. This would allow better identification of each sub-category, its needs and requirements. One example of specific assistance to SMEs to fulfil their obligations is the European Parliament grant of EUR 5 million to the Bilbao Agency in order to prepare for a multiannual programme on SMEs. The results of these preparatory measures will provide the European Commission with useful information before drafting the multiannual SME-programme. The Committee considers that programmes of this nature are the best way to accompany the concrete implementation of European legislation and wishes therefore that these EUR 5 million are not just an isolated measure, but the starting point for a broader programme.

3.2.4. One example of good implementation of workers' responsibilities for health and safety conditions, as established under the Framework Directive, is the roving and regional safety representative scheme as established in Sweden. The choice of the appropriate form would depend on the respective health and safety systems of Member States.

3.3. Towards a new approach for the improvement of health and safety at work in practice

3.3.1. In its 1999 Opinion, the Committee already pointed to the opportunity of including health and safety in the Employment Policy Guidelines. For the year 2001 Council decided to do so: guideline 14 makes a reference to this effect.

3.3.2. The Committee thinks that the method of open co-ordination in the field of health and safety is appropriate as an additional device for re-invigorating occupational health and safety policy in the European Union, in particular, in terms of setting precise targets for all Members States aiming to reduce work-related accidents and the incidence of occupational illness. These joint precise targets should be set on the basis of an evaluation of experiences made so far in the Member States where such targets have been introduced (including for instance, problems related to definition, monitoring, how to ensure compliance, voluntary versus, obligatory systems, etc.), followed by a pilot study. This could help the proper preparation and operationalisation of the proposed approach. The way the jointly set targets will be reached could be left completely to the discretion of the Member States. They should be jointly monitored, and periodically Member Sates should report on the substance of their policies so as to allow a joint assessment of successful and less successful methods, as well as of progress made. Target setting and monitoring at the European level allows for adequate tailor-made solutions where and when needed. The Committee attaches great importance to the work of the Dublin foundation where indicators for the quality of work are being drawn up.

3.3.3. The Committee also calls for measures as regards risk factors not yet sufficiently reflected in health and safety statistics, like RSI or psychosocial factors (stress, coping at work and overall fatigue). The formulation of common definitions which allows for benchmarking in these fields should be done as one of the first measures.

3.4. Actors in the field of health and safety

Each of the actors at European and national level in the field of health and safety has a special role to play. The Committee considers that success in this field requires proper involvement and commitment of all actors concerned in their respective areas of responsibilities and proper articulation between the company, local, national and EU levels. In order to fulfil their tasks properly, all actors at EC level working in the field of occupational health and safety should be adequately financed and staffed.

3.4.1. European Commission The Committee observes that occupational health and safety policy is too often regarded as limited to experts. The Committee stresses that this field of EU social policy is of prime importance and should not be confined in a closed circle of technicians and other insiders. Its political visibility must be improved and the EU institutions should ensure proper coordination between safety and health policy and other relevant EU policies (employment, public health, internal market, research, environment, etc.) It is obvious that the European Commission's own ability to play its initiating role in a satisfactory way is very much dependent on adequate financing and staffing. In the recent past, these units have been considerably downsized. The Committee calls on the relevant institutions adequately to staff and finance the relevant units of the European Commission, in order to enable them properly to fulfil their present as well as new tasks, for which it has made a number of suggestions above. The Committee has addressed this matter in earlier opinions with some concern. This is all the more worrying if one considers the considerable burden of work which will be connected with the future enlargement of the EU.

3.4.2. Eurostat

Eurostat provides data on work-related accidents. The Committee considers that further efforts should be developed, especially at national level, in order to ensure better comparability and accuracy of the data collected. The Committee attaches great importance to the recent programme developed by Eurostat aiming at harmonising statistics on the causes of work-related accidents. This will form a sound basis to better preventative strategies. There is also a need to extend the collection and availability of statistical data on occupational illnesses. Careful attention must also be devoted to the collection of data on new risks, including those related to the development of atypical forms of work contract.

3.4.3. Bilbao Agency

The European Agency for Safety and Health - established in 1995 - has its main task in providing and disseminating systematic information on health and safety to the European institutions, the Member States, to social partners, as well as to employers and workers at workplaces. A recent evaluation showed clearly that the Agency has succeeded in establishing a network via national focal points, but that further efforts are necessary in order to meet the information needs of all target groups. The Committee believes that the Agency could be of special importance in identifying and disseminating examples of good practices, which would help employers and workers to find solutions to specific health and safety problems. In the context of the "changing world and work", the Agency should make a special effort to identify, explore and provide information about trends in health and safety. The collaboration between the Dublin Foundation -especially the Observatory on Change - and the Bilbao Agency in this respect should be reinforced.

3.4.4. Dublin Foundation

The Foundation for the improvement of the living and working conditions carries out important research in the field of health and safety. The regular monitoring of working conditions provides useful information on the perception of working conditions by the workers themselves. The Committee considers it also essential for the Foundation to develop tools aiming at better evaluation of the efforts developed by companies for the improvement of working conditions, in particular regarding occupational safety and health.

3.4.5. Advisory Committee for Safety Hygiene and Health (ACSHH)

The Economic and Social Committee believes that the ACSHH should play a central role in the implementation of the future Community strategy in the field of occupational safety and health and invited the Commission to launch the reform process as required by the ACSHH itself in an opinion adopted in 2000.

3.4.6. Social dialogue The Treaty of Amsterdam incorporated the social dialogue procedure into the Treaty of the European Union. Therefore new proposals in the field of health and safety are submitted to the same consultation procedure of the social partners as is all social policy. The relation between the ACSHH and the social partners has to be clarified along the lines of the social partner agreement on the application of the Social Chapter to health and safety at work of October 2000. In this agreement social partners called on the Commission not to infringe on their prerogatives by consulting the ACSHH instead of the social partners. The social partners should be consulted on the direction of a possible new initiative, but the second consultation could be conferred to the ACSHH, provided that the social partners decide not to take up negotiations on the proposal in question. The Committee supports the agreement. It believes that the social partners themselves need to find adequate solutions to link sectoral European organisations to the horizontal European organisations in order to guarantee the maintenance of the right to be consulted. The Committee remains convinced that the employers and workers have an important role to play in addition to the legislator, firstly in the consultative process concerning the development of the legislation, and secondly in the development of tools for the implementation of legislation.

3.4.7. Member States Traditionally, the Community's health and safety strategy has only required Member States to put obligations on employers. But Member States themselves have responsibilities for health and safety and these should be emphasised. Member States should be examples of good practice no less than the Commission, with the highest standards of health and safety applying to the staff of the Member States, and also in public procurement. Member States should also be given clear guidance (and requested to report back) on the inclusion of measures to promote risk literacy in public education and training, the inclusion of rehabilitation opportunities in state compensation systems, the penalties applied to breaches of health and safety legislation, and the performance of the agencies responsible for inspecting health and safety. In particular, Member States should ensure that their health systems have the objective of returning people of working age to the labour market when they suffer an injury, illness or disability (i.e. not just having the objective of making them well again). It should also be noted that when allocating public funds for preventive measures in the workplace, it is important to remember that this type of expense actually has a positive impact on the public finances since it helps avoid incurring twice the expense in terms of healthcare and wasted employment opportunities.

3.5. Articulation EU/National levels

The Committee considers that the implementation of the future Community strategy on occupational health and safety must provide for reinforced articulation and coordination between the national and the EU levels. This appears as a key for the success of all actions to be developed in this field.

3.6. Enlargement

3.6.1. The acquis in the field of health and safety is an important part of the social acquis to be accepted by the candidate countries during the negotiations. Transitional periods for the implementation should be avoided as far as possible in order to guarantee for health and safety of workers in the candidate countries as well as to avoid distortion of competition between "old" and "new" Member States.

3.6.2. If transitional periods are inevitable they should be as short as possible. Exemptions should not refer to the whole directive but only to these regulations that cannot be implemented immediately. Such exemptions must not, however, result in the extension of the transitional periods.

3.6.3. The Committee recalls that not only the legal implementation has to be monitored but also the practical application at the workplaces. This requires the establishment of well-functioning labour inspections in the candidate countries.

3.6.4. In order to prepare the candidate countries for the health and safety acquis, partnership programmes together with institutions and organisations from the Member States should be reinforced and adequately financed.

4. EU-ILO relations as regards occupational health and safety

4.1. The Committee urges the European Commission to intensify its cooperation with the ILO in the field of occupational health and safety. It also draws the Commission's attention to the fact that ratification by EU Member States of ILO occupational health and safety Conventions in the past twenty years has been poor, although the level of protection provided for by these instruments is generally well below the EU's. While the Committee is aware that ratification of ILO Conventions is the prerogative of Member States, it notes that the Commission's competence as regards occupational health and safety policies has, at least for part of the period mentioned, influenced the ratification behaviour of Member States.

4.2. Improving the current state of affairs is in the interest of employers and workers not only in the EU, but also in developing countries, whose Governments now withhold ratification, using the false argument that if highly developed countries such as the EU Member States cannot meet the standards set by the ILO, they certainly cannot be expected to do so.

4.3. With a view to the above, the Committee requests the European Commission to discuss this issue with the Member States in the near future. It hopes that this initiative will contribute to an improved ratification of the relevant Conventions in the next few years.

Brussels, 11 July 2001.

The President

of the Economic and Social Committee

Göke Frerichs

(1) OJ C 51, 23.2.2000 - Health and safety in the workplace - Application of Community measures and new risks.

(2) Ten Years of Working conditions in the European Union.

(3) European Agency for Safety and Health at Work Conference "Good safety and health is good business for Europe" September 1997.