With 180 000 work-related deaths every year in the European Union and more than 2.5 million worldwide, occupational health is a crucial issue for workers and trade unions. Knowing that, somewhere in the world, a worker dies every 11 seconds because of a lack of proper prevention, you might wonder whether there is any point in campaigning for more employment or better wages if these jobs end up taking workers’ lives. And in more than nine out of ten cases, these deaths are largely invisible, because they result from occupational diseases rather than accidents.
Going to court to demand compliance with preventive legislation is a laborious, costly and infrequently used process. This fact consolidates the image of the world of work as an enclave where the rules of ordinary law do not apply. But should the property rights of business owners really take precedence over the fundamental right to life?
It is clear from historical experience that legal cases play a decisive role in pushing for change. The asbestos ban would probably never have come about without the numerous lawsuits that preceded it. And the fate of glyphosate will be sealed in the near future partly by the actions brought by workers who have fallen victim to this weedkiller, which is still permitted on European soil.
To go to court is to testify that the right to health at work is a fundamental human right, that violating it must be punished, and that there must be compensation for the consequences. This is often a difficult path that calls for individual persistence and collective courage. This special report on occupational safety cases brings together accounts of emblematic trials from various European countries. We hope that it will also provoke a debate about what kinds of litigation strategies could help to stimulate collective action on the crucial issue of occupational health.
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