On 28 June 2021, the Commission presented a new EU strategic framework on health and safety at work 2021-2027. Follow up to the current strategy 2014-2020, it will be the guideline for the development of the protection of workers’ health and safety for the coming years. As an initial analysis shows, in spite of ambitious targets, in many areas, the strategic framework falls short of expectations.
The Commission names three priority areas in its new strategy:
- To guarantee safe and healthy jobs within the scope of the digital, green and demographic transition,
- To reduce the number of work-related fatalities in the EU to zero
- Better preventative measures for future potential health crises as lesson learned from the current Covid-19 crisis
The fact that the European Commission’s new strategy is taking up the longstanding demand of trade unions and workers’ organisations, urging Member States to address failures regarding health and safety at work, which jeopardize the life and health of workers is positive. However, the Commission does not go far enough in respect of its own proposals – even though in view of the large number of affected workers severe risks exist. For example, no legislation has been planned with regard to musculoskeletal disorders and mental health.
With this in mind, Esther Lynch, ETUC Deputy General Secretary, states: “Friendly, warm words are not enough when the number of work-related accidents is rising and when every year over 100,000 people die of work-related cancer – but ergonomic and psychosocial risks are also on the increase. What is required are stricter rules to achieve proper enforcement for everybody.”
Inadequate progress in respect of carcinogens
Unfortunately, the new strategic framework proposes that only some carcinogens will be tackled in the coming years. However, it would be necessary to define limits for the 50 substances with the highest possibility of exposure.
In case of carcinogens, so far only 27 have been given a limit. It is especially unfortunate that a combined exposure to dangerous, chemical and endocrine disruptors as well as the revision of limits for the exposure to crystalline silica have not been included in the strategy. Currently, one is aware of the risk of the single substance one is exposed to. As many workplaces are dealing parallel with several substances, the actual potential risk of several substances, which are processed at the same time, is often more than the combination of individual risks.
Gaps regarding mental health, musculoskeletal disorders and heat
It is especially regrettable that the Commission has not provided for any legislation on mental health and musculoskeletal disorders, even though directives in these areas are getting increasingly urgent. Hence, in view of climate change it is more than surprising that maximum temperatures at work, in spite of the serious risk, have not been mentioned.
However, it is positive that the Commission urges the Member States to recognise Covid-19 as an occupational disease. This is part of “Vision Zero” to completely prevent work-related accidents and occupational diseases – in view of a million work-related Covid cases and 100,000 fatalities through work-related cancer and an increasing number of fatal work-related accidents.
From a worker’s point of view, the inclusion of self-employed people in the current legal acquis is cause for great concern. In high-risk industries, such as the building sector, where bogus self-employment is widespread, this might result in undermining the fight against bogus self-employment, without specifically improving health and safety at work for these workers.
Number of work inspections in the EU down
The number of work inspections has been greatly reduced in many EU countries. Thus, the Commission is calling on Member States to counteract this downward trend by expanding inspections. Esther Lynch states: “It is a scandal that the number of work inspections was at the lowest level when Covid struck, which possibly cost lives and contributed to the increasing number of cases. In doing so, the Commission sent a strong signal to Member States, declaring that this dangerous situation can no longer be tolerated”.