23% of European workers believe that their safety or their health is at risk because of their work – a figure which shows that working conditions in Europe are not improving. And even though manufacturing employment across Europe is shrinking and losing ground to service jobs, exposure to traditional physical hazards - noise, dangerous goods, heavy lifting, etc. – has not gone away.
Along with this, a growing number of workers are complaining of the effect their work is having on their psychological health. Ill-being at work can end in tragedy, as evidenced by the wave of suicides that has affected some big French companies in recent years.
New forms of work organization and the increasing time-pressure of work may be partly behind the persistence of traditional risks and the emergence of new ones in firms. Trade unions believe that work intensification is the main cause of the work-related stress and musculoskeletal disorders now seen to be affecting more than one in five workers.
While these may be problems in all countries, industries and occupations, it is clear that the lowest-skilled and manual workers are bearing the brunt. The healthy life expectancy of a 35-year-old manual worker in France, for example, is ten years less than that of a manager. As the talk in many EU member countries turns towards staying working longer, a debate on working conditions and their impact on workers’ health is a must. We are stepping into that debate through the following topic studies.
On 28 February, the European Parliament’s Committee on Employment and Social Affairs voted in favour of various amendments to the European Commission’s proposal for a directive amending Directive 2004/37/EC on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to carcinogens or mutagens at work.
According to an investigation published on 24 February in the French daily newspaper Le Monde, experts with industry links dominate a committee advising the European Commission on the adoption of occupational exposure limits.
The road to equality between men and women in the workplace is still paved with good intentions, albeit a long and boring road where progress occurs all too slowly. That is the picture gleaned from various speakers at an ETUI seminar held on 13 and 14 February 2017. The purpose of the event was to present the results of work recently completed on the gender health gap.
The ETUI is recruiting a head of unit to manage and supervise the activities of the ‘Health and Safety/Working Conditions’ unit. The head of unit will facilitate the communication and cooperation within the unit and within the research department as well as with the ETUC.
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.
Tony Musu (ETUI), Laurent Vogel (ETUI) and Henning Wriedt (Beratungs- und Informationsstelle Arbeit & Gesundheit, Hamburg)
Henning Wriedt (Occupational Health & Safety Advice Centre, Hamburg, Germany)