European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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Why work equipment standardisation has become important to trade unions?

In the context of equipment used at work, European standards-making bodies are assigned the task of formulating the design specifications that meet the health and safety objectives of the Machinery Directive. Therefore, low quality standards might result in a negative health and safety impact on workers.

The background to machinery regulation

  • Under the New Approach to technical harmonization and standardization, the public authorities lay down the "essential health and safety requirements (EHSRs)"- expressed as broad objectives – that machinery placed on the Community market must meet if it is to benefit from free movement within the Community.
  • The detailed technical specifications of machinery that meets these objectives are laid down in voluntary ‘harmonized’ European standards adopted by CEN or CENELEC under an official remit (the "mandate") to give practical effect to the EHSRs.
  • Machinery manufactured in compliance with these harmonised standards benefits from a presumption of conformity with the applicable essential requirements.

Key points for trade unions

  • Standards developed by private bodies are becoming an essential ingredient of protective and preventive legislative requirements: important issues for the health and safety of workers are negotiated outside the workplace.
  • Trade unions now face the challenge of maintaining the ability to influence the regulatory mechanism covering technology at work which they had before, when they were consulted on regulations being adopted at national level.
  • The shift from the national fragmented discussions on technical matters among different Member States that have now been centralized in the context of total harmonisation: one European standard all across Europe.
  • Standardisation has the potential to provide the platform for collaborative work between engineers, employers, workers, manufacturers, researchers and governments who can contribute to better health and safety through consideration of design issues.
  • Through standardisation in particular, trade unions can explore pathways to deliver the aim of putting workers' knowledge to best use in improving the working environment. The focus will be on what information can be extracted from the working environment to help improve the design of work equipment.
  • Machinery standardisation under the New Approach deals with design, and design is contributory in a significant proportion of workplace deaths and injuries involving machinery. This explains why trade unions must work for a better quality of these 'harmonised' design standards supporting the Machinery Directive.