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6 December 2019

The ETUI debates the future of occupational health in Europe

HealthSafety19 - Crédit Photo: Frédéric Pauwels

The European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) held a conference in Brussels on 3 - 4 December to debate the outlook for health and safety at work in Europe. Attended by some 200 people, the conference served as a forum for comparing the views of researchers, unionists and political decision-makers.

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The conference marked the thirtieth anniversary of the OSH framework directive, the backbone of European health and safety legislation. Adopted on 12 June 1989, this legislation took up some of the main claims put forward by the unions in the course of the preceding two decades.

The conference was organised in three sessions. Looking at the directive’s history, the first session was introduced by Aude Cefaliello who highlighted the fact that the directive was adopted in an economic boom, i.e. in a window of opportunity. The testimonials of two union leaders who took part in the negotiations at that time, Jean Lapeyre and Marc Sapir, helped delegates better understand how this directive was able to establish principles which remain fundamental to the organisation of prevention to this day: the need to eliminate risks at source, the obligation to assess all risks and an employer’s liability in all aspects of work organisation with a potential negative impact of health.

Recognition of these principles was the result of the many mobilisations which, since the 1960s, had put health and safety issues at the centre of industrial disputes, helping to transform unions. Laurent Vogel and Italian historian Enrico Bullian highlighted the importance of the health and safety struggles in Italy and how these influenced the whole trade union movement in Europe.

The second session was devoted to discussions on the interactions between scientific knowledge, union mobilisations and the regulation of risks. Marianne Lacomblez (Porto University) showed how the feminist movement had opened up new perspectives for occupational health. Tatiana Santos (European Environmental Bureau) looked at the links between scientific work and mobilisations for the environment. Nathalie Jas (National Institute for Agricultural Research, France) spotlighted the ambiguities and grey areas in the expert opinions of scientists required by the regulatory bodies with regard to pesticides. These opinions were structured by many complex protocols based in many cases on hypotheses that were misleading when compared to work out in the field. In particular, many dangerous pesticides were authorised under the pretext that the wearing of personal protection equipment afforded sufficient protection. On-the-ground studies revealed the opposite. Emilie Counil (French Institute for Demographic Studies, INED) presented the interactions but also the potential tensions existing between scientific work and union mobilisations. She pointed out that a large portion of scientific work was “under the influence” of industrial lobbies and that the doubts inherent to any scientific research were often used as a pretext to slow down the process of regulating risks.

The third session was devoted to several aspects of today’s world of work. Michel Héry (French National Research and Safety Institute, INRS) presented the Institute’s forward-looking research looking at various innovations from a health and safety angle. Putting his spotlight on robotics and the gig economy, he insisted that economic and political choices were behind every algorithm. Sarrah Kassem (University of Tübingen) analysed working conditions at Amazon, looking also at the forms of resistance developing among the company’s employees. Patrick Ackermann contextualised the wave of suicides at France Télécom between 2006 and 2011, highlighting the brutal restructuring at that time and the violence institutionalised by the methods used by management. He looked back at the union struggle which had ended with the indictment of the company’s top executives at that time. He also showed that the Macron government was set on depriving workers of key occupational health tools, such as the committees for occupational health, safety and working conditions (CHSCTs) present in all larger French companies.

The debates on EU occupational health policy compared the positions of the European Trade Union Confederation (represented by its deputy Secretary General Per Hilmersson), Business Europe (represented by Jessie Fernandes), the European Commission (represented by Charlotte Grevfors-Ernoult, the European Parliament (represented by Agnes Jongerius (Socialist, the Netherlands) and Mounir Satouri (the Greens, France) and the Presidency of the European Council (represented by Riita Sauni  from the Finnish Ministry of Social Affairs and Health). The point of convergence was the necessity to forge ahead with revising the legislation on carcinogens and the recognition that occupational health had to be a priority for the new European Commission. MEP Agnes Jongerius called on the unions to continue exerting strong pressure.

Winding up, Marian Schaapman, head of the ETUI health & safety and working conditions unit, emphasised that occupational health inevitably posed the question: "What form of society do we want?".

Photo credit: Frédéric Pauwels

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