European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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10 February 2017

Encouraging signs of change in EU occupational safety and health policy

On 10 January this year, the European Commission adopted a communication on the future of EU legislation and policy on occupational safety and health (OSH). ETUI researchers have studied the text and have identified positive signs of a shift in policy in favour of workers, particularly with respect to exposure to chemical risks. The Commission’s proposals regarding a number of problems associated with the organisation of work, however, such as musculoskeletal disorders, remain distinctly unambitious.

‘On the whole, the communication is less biased toward deregulation than a number of previous Commission documents. This is a positive development that may help to relaunch OSH policies in the European Union,’ says Laurent Vogel, researcher at the ETUI.

Vogel welcomes the Commission’s acknowledgement that European OSH legislation is a fundamental component of EU policy in this area. This marks a considerable change, since over his two terms as President of the Commission, José Manuel Barroso took every opportunity to target the OSH acquis.

The ETUI researcher nevertheless regrets that the Commission wishes to establish a ‘peer review’ process to reduce the administrative burden supposedly linked to national OSH legislation. European OSH directives lay down minimum requirements for Member States, which can therefore adopt measures ensuring greater worker protection than that laid down in EU provisions, such as lower occupational exposure limit values.

Vogel is concerned that the peer review system will be used to put pressure on Member States that have taken measures which are more protective than the EU minimums.

While the ETUI acknowledges the considerable progress made in chemical risk prevention, the communication unfortunately fails to address the issue of asbestos, a far from obsolete deadly substance that continues to be present in a significant number of buildings. It is therefore still a major risk for workers, particularly in the building and maintenance trades. The ETUI also points out that the text is silent as to the health challenges posed by the increasing presence of nanoparticles and endocrine disruptors in the workplace.

With respect to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), the communication provides for the 1990 Display Screen Equipment Directive to be updated. The ETUI notes that this text must be adapted in the light of technological developments, though the scope of the problem means that that measure alone is insufficient. MSDs are the most common complaint among European employees, and Europe’s trade union movement continues to call for the adoption of a general directive on such disorders. Rather than proposing a text of that kind, however, in early 2013 the European Commission merely presented a non-binding recommendation.

The ETUI points out finally that the communication does not pay sufficient attention to two essential occupational risk prevention stakeholders: workers’ safety and health representatives on the one hand and labour inspectors on the other. This is unfortunate at a time when these inspectors are currently finding it increasingly difficult to carry out their duties properly in most European countries (see the HesaMag special report on this topic).

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