Work without fear: EU should do more to protect workers' health and safety

MEPs Ole Christensen, Jutta Steinruck and Paloma López Bermejo talk to the Parliament Magazine about the importance of strong health and safety at work rules.

Ole Christensen, Jutta Steinruck and Paloma López Bermejo talk about the importance of strong health and safety at work rules | Photo credit: Fotolia

The stark statistics speak for themselves: each year more than 150,000 Europeans die from work related accidents or illnesses. Many of these injuries and fatalities are caused by people being exposed to carcinogenic substances at work and the latest findings reveal that worldwide, work-related injury and illness result in the loss of 3.9 per cent of GDP.

Danish Socialist MEP Ole Christensen says it would be foolhardy to “simply ignore” such data, saying, “Everyone should be able to go to work without fearing sickness or injury.” 

Christensen, who is parliament’s rapporteur on the strategic framework on health and safety at work, adds, “However, we should also remember, that everyone wins on health and safety. Work related illness and injuries are costing the EU around €476bn every year. And that’s actually a low estimate, as it does not account for all the indirect costs.


“Studies have also shown that investments in health and safety doubles the money. It simply makes no sense not to invest in safer, more secure and healthier workplaces. It saves lives and it is good for business.” 

The Commission’s proposal on revising the carcinogens and mutagens directive is, however, a “move in the right direction,” says Christensen. 

“Nevertheless,” he warns, “we still face major challenges and need to figure out how to better deal with stress and other types of mental health issues. We are on the right track, but we need to keep pushing for more ambition. Lives are on stake.”

Earlier this year, the Commission launched a new initiative to promote occupational safety and health, and discussions have also addressed how to comply with the review of the directive on new European exposure limits to substances believed to cause cancer among workers. 

Christensen’s comments are largely endorsed by German Socialist deputy Jutta Steinruck, a member of the employment committee, who says that the revision of the directive is “crucial” to provide better health and safety protection for workers. 

Parliament, she says, has achieved a breakthrough with binding and stringent limits for wood dust or chromium VI compounds across Europe. 

“Better protection also means that substances which can cause infertility, or endanger pregnancies, must be included in the directive.”

Steinruck adds, “In this respect, we have been able to examine the possibility of incorporating reprotoxic substances into the directive by the first quarter of 2019 at the latest. 

“The agreement on the first of three badges also provides for the national authorities responsible for health monitoring of workers in the member states, to continue to carry out controls after the end of the employment. 

“Even many years after an employee has completed an activity, a life-threatening illness can break out because of influences exposed to at the workplace. 

“I expect the Commission to introduce new limit values for further substances. A delay is not an option as the health of millions of people depends on it.”

Spanish GUE MEP Paloma López Bermejo, agrees, pointing to a gradual EU-wide rise in workplace accidents.

She says, “The main reasons are, on the one hand, the economic cutbacks of public policies regarding prevention programmes and, on the other hand, the labour regulation reforms, as has happened in Spain, that debilitate collective bargaining and the possibility of creating new prevention plans and measures to improve health and safety at work.”

Bermejo believes that the “damage of labour conditions, the normalisation of temporal works, subcontracts, deregulation and the enactment of a precarious labour market” all contribute to a “general and uncontrolled” increase of workplace accidents in the EU, calling this a “symptom of social regression. There should not be economic interest above workers’ rights. Health and security of workers cannot be measured in terms of costs and benefits but, even if it could be measured that way, it’s important to state that the investment of €1 in work wellness has a return of €2.2 in benefits.”

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU OSHA) is particularly important, she insists, in order “to give impulse to campaigns and promotions to get more safety workplaces.” 

Set up in 1994 and based in Bilbao, Spain, the agency seeks to make European workplaces safer, healthier and more productive for the benefit of businesses, employees and governments. 

However, Bermejo says that when it comes to health and safety in the workplace much still needs to be done. “Regrettably, there's too much indifference from the European Commission on this matter.”


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