The EU is legislating for a safer work environment

The EU legislation for health and safety at work aims to eliminate work-related deaths in Member States by 2030 and to improve workers’ conditions
Adobe stock

By Sergio Caci

Sergio Caci (IT, EPP) is rapporteur of the European CoR on EU Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work 2021-2027

01 Mar 2022

European legislation in the field of occupational safety and health (OSH) is essential. It helps protect the nearly 170 million workers in the EU and ensures decent working conditions for all.

The EU Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work for 2021-2027 sets an ambitious ‘Vision Zero’ target to eliminate work-related deaths in Member States by 2030. With this new strategy, the European Commission aims to ensure a safer working environment, one aligned with new needs arising from the pandemic, digital and green transitions and new work forms.

“Some €476bn could be saved each year with the right strategies, policies and practices for safety and health at work”

Scientific and technological developments, improved legislation and better management systems have led to a significant decrease in work-related accidents over the past 40 years. A solid culture of prevention is the primary method for achieving the Vision Zero objective, in the common interest of workers and businesses. 

Ultimately, Vision Zero should not be limited to deaths alone, but should also target workplace accidents and illnesses. In 2020, more than 4.6 million work-related accidents were reported in the EU. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work and the International Labour Organisation have calculated that diseases and accidents at work cost 3.3 per cent of the EU’s GDP. Some €476bn each year could be saved with the right strategies, policies and practices for safety and health at work.

A study by the International Social Security Association shows that employers save more than €2 for every one they invest on improving safety and health at work. Work itself is an important factor in promoting health. An increasing number of employers recognise the benefits of implementing health promotion policies in workplaces and of promoting safe and healthy lifestyles.

Despite these considerable improvements and the Commission’s lofty ambitions, Europe’s workers are not all equally protected. In fact, the scope of the application of the OSH strategy excludes the self-employed, among them platform workers. A food delivery courier who has an accident not only runs the risk of serious injury, but also a loss of income due to a lack of social protection. The EU initiative on improving the working conditions for platform workers must, therefore, include strong references to OSH. 

While migrant seasonal workers are entitled to the same rights and protections as the citizens of their host country, violations of health and safety requirements are frequent. Undocumented migrants find themselves in a particularly vulnerable position. In addition, it is time to enforce EU and national legislation properly in the agri-food sector. 

The Common Agricultural Policy reform will finally allow for the suspension of payments to farmers that fail to respect workers’ rights, as suggested by the European Parliament and the European Committee of the Regions several years ago.

Precarious and unhealthy working and living conditions have seen seasonal workers particularly exposed to the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. In most other sectors where remote working was not possible, such as healthcare and essential services, the majority of workers were women. The Commission has rightly recommended that Member States recognise Covid-19 as an occupational disease. 

At the same time, a growing number of workers are being expected to continue working from their homes even after the pandemic. Particular attention therefore needs to be on teleworkers’ working conditions, including ergonomics and the ‘right to disconnect’. The Commission should also lose no time in designing and implementing an EU-wide initiative on mental health at work in order to assess the emerging issues in this area.

“In 2020, more than 4.6 million work-related accidents were reported in the European Union”

Digitalisation and technological progress are constantly changing the landscape of the workplace. New technologies, such as robots and artificial intelligence (AI), can reduce the risks from dangerous tasks that were previously undertaken by workers. 

However, it is also important to anticipate the problems that could arise from these technologies. Dialogue with workers and the involvement of social partners will be crucial factors in ensuring a human-centred approach to AI at work.

Regional and local authorities address occupational safety problems on the ground, they supervise the implementation of EU and national legislation, and serve as an example as employers. Cooperation between them, the EU and relevant national bodies - as well as the exchange of experience and good practices - can encourage progress on occupational health and safety, building a solid culture of prevention and protection of workers. 

To this end, we urge the European Commission to create a dedicated digital tool for regions and cities to provide guidance to the European legislator on health and safety at work. 

The world of work is evolving rapidly, obliging us to address all aspects of health and safety at work more quickly than in the past. It is only through an in-depth dialogue with stakeholders, including local and regional authorities, that the Vision Zero target can be realised.