Appearances are deceptive might be the best way to summarize the findings of a study by the Confederation of Christian Trade Unions (CSC) on work accidents in Belgium. While the official figures point to a steady decline in the number and frequency of work accidents, this does not necessarily mean that prevention is improving. In fact, the number of serious accidents leaving victims with a permanent disability is going up. In 2009, 15 891 people were left permanently disabled after a work accident in Belgium - and this is only in the private sector. The study shows that the risk of serious injury to manual workers has increased in the past thirty years. In 2009, there were 9.3 serious or fatal accidents per 1 000 workers compared to 7 per 1 000 in 1980.

The probability of being seriously or fatally injured is greater in firms with fewer than 50 workers which have no union representation on health and safety. So, 11.8% of fatal accidents occur in firms with between 1 and 4 workers, which actually account for 9.5% of the total workforce.

The study shows that health and safety inspection in Belgium is at crisis point. Despite the different governments’ promises, the number of inspectors has declined over the past twenty years while their tasks have grown in number and complexity. On average, each inspector has to monitor more than 2 000 firms totalling over 30 000 workers. In 2009, just 79 fines were paid for breaches of health and safety at work legislation when 127 fatal accidents and nearly 16 000 serious accidents that maimed a worker for life were reported.