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European Commissioner responsible for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion
"EU Strategy on Health and Safety at Work – Where We Stand and Future Priorities"
Conference on Occupational Safety & Health at Work / Copenhagen,
28 June 2012
Ladies and gentlemen,
I extend my warm greetings to you all and my thanks to the Danish Presidency for their invitation.
The conference is taking place at a very important juncture. The final assessment of the 2007-to-2012 EU Strategy on Health and Safety at work is ongoing. Your contributions today will be taken into account both when the assessment is finalised and when the priorities in the health and safety area are set for the period after 2013.
The European Union's health and safety at work policy has become one of the most important areas of social policy. The EU strategies on health and safety have contributed to this success since 2002.
Investing in occupational health and safety contributes to company performance, improves staff well-being, reduces absenteeism and staff turnover, and brings greater job satisfaction. There is no doubt that a good working environment is a big factor in competitiveness and can play a crucial role in increasing the workforce’s potential.
This policy area should therefore be seen as contributing significantly to achieving the objectives of the Europe 2020 Strategy — in other words, helping to foster smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, and in particular to raise the employment rate from the current 69% to at least 75%.
Now let me share a few remarks on the implementation of the Strategy for 2007 to 2012.
Current Strategy’s aim and achievements: final evaluation
The Strategy's general aim was to achieve a continuous, sustainable and uniform reduction in accidents at work and in occupational diseases.
In particular, it sought to reduce the total incidence of accidents at work by 25% across the 27 Member States. To achieve that goal, the Strategy proposed a number of instruments, ranging from new legislation to the mainstreaming of health and safety at work in other policies.
The Strategy’s effectiveness in achieving such a reduction can only be assessed once official Eurostat data for 2012 are available. In principle that will not be possible before 2014.
For the time being, the figures available for 2007 to 2009 suggest that place of work accident rates continue to decline.
More precisely, the data for those three years show a fall in the accident rate in 15 Member States, they are stable in four, and they increased in only three Member States.
The incidence of accidents at work is therefore likely to be significantly lower in 2012 than it was five years ago, and we have reason to believe that the EU Strategy has contributed positively to that.
The full evaluation of the current Strategy is still ongoing, but I will outline its main positive effects — the pluses — and the areas that call for further attention — the minuses.
First the pluses:
Conversely, they feel that a failure to devise one would imply that occupational safety and health is a low policy priority for the Union, with a consequent negative impact on the ground.
A strategy for the future?
According to the 5th European Survey on Working Conditions in 2010, 24% of workers in the EU’s 27 Member States report that their health and safety is at risk because of their work.
That is lower than the 31% reported in 2000. But while it indicates an improvement, it also shows there is still much work to do to reduce human pain and suffering and create the conditions for a more productive workforce.
In the light of these figures and of the preliminary results of the evaluation of the current Strategy and without prejudging further policy debate, I am convinced that the EU needs a health and safety Strategy and that a new strategy is justified.
Let me outline the three main reasons for such a strategy.
First, occupational health and safety risks and the burden of work-related harm are broadly the same across the EU. Workers, companies and Member States face similar challenges in this area. European workers continue to be exposed to physical hazards since 33% of workers carry heavy loads for at least a quarter of their working time, and nearly half of all workers — 46% — work in tiring or painful positions for at least a quarter of the time. Nearly 30% of workers in the EU’s 27 Member States are exposed to loud noise for at least a quarter of their working time and 15% either breathe in smoke, fumes or dust, or handle dangerous chemicals
Our experience shows there is a clear role for EU-led action to help the Member States tackle those risks more effectively.
Secondly, we have comprehensive EU legislation covering the major risks, but just transposing and enforcing will not by itself reduce the incidence of accidents and work-related disease.
Action to improve the Member States' capacity to implement occupational safety and health policy effectively in line with the EU priorities is needed to ensure better application of national provisions in this area and a more consistent approach at EU level.
Exchanging experience and good practice in various areas, identifying common indicators, setting targets, taking joint initiatives to identify new risks and adopting a common strategic approach to occupational health and safety problems are examples of genuine EU added value.
Thirdly, strategic forward-planning is needed for a coherent framework for action on a number of policy objectives in areas of relevance to occupational health and safety — such as public health, consumer protection, employment, environmental protection, energy saving, and competitiveness. Here again the EU role is crucial as a driver for effective and consistent actions across all Member States.
A future strategy’s key priorities
I believe that a possible strategy for the forthcoming period should focus on a smaller number of priorities.
The first key area should be tackling health issues and preventing work-related health problems more effectively.
Occupational and work-related diseases place a heavy burden on workers and companies.
For instance, work-related musculo-skeletal disorders are a serious health problem that affects employment and productivity.
At least 11 million workers are estimated to suffer from such disorders.
The estimated total health, economic and financial cost of these conditions to workers, employers and public authorities is almost €163 billion over two years.
Work-related psycho-social risks are also a growing problem in the EU, especially in a time of crisis.
For instance, the fear of losing one’s job and the effects this might have — combined with a lack of career prospects — can have serious implications for the health and well-being of workers and of members of their households.
We also need to be aware of the potential risks of new technologies. Nanotechnology, genetic engineering and synthetic biology are significant examples.
The second key area that any new strategy should focus on is more effective implementation of EU legislation.
This is true in particular in SMEs, which employ most EU workers, and especially in micro-enterprises.
These firms may have difficulty in complying with health and safety rules given their lack of specialised resources of their own. The consequence is either poor working conditions with higher risks for workers, or high compliance costs due to the need to hire expensive consultants.
Special measures and approaches are therefore needed to help SMEs comply with the provisions and perform better, without imposing an unnecessary burden.
OiRA, the Online Interactive Risk Assessment tool developed by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work in Bilbao can provide SMEs with an effective and less costly solution to document risk assessment. This is a tool that needs to be further promoted and used to its full potential.
The third key area involves the need for a special effort over the next few years to make working life sustainable.
Given the demographic challenges facing Europe, sound health and safety for workers is a precondition for a sustainable working life and active and healthy ageing after retirement.
It is also among the comprehensive measures needed to enable and encourage people to continue working longer and thus support changes to pension systems.
Better and longer working careers are urgently needed to finance and support the longer lives European citizens are living.
But people can only take up opportunities to continue working for longer if they remain fit and healthy, and workplaces need to be suitable for an ageing workforce.
We therefore need to think about specific initiatives to promote the health and safety of older workers, facilitate healthy ageing at work and develop a culture of prevention throughout working life.
I am confident that the results of and experience during this European Year for Active Ageing will help us to design good initiatives.
The key role of stakeholders
Stakeholders must play a key role in occupational health and safety, and in particular in the evaluation of the current — and the design of any future — strategy.
I want to stress the key role that the social partners play in devising and implementing health and safety policy at both national and EU level.
Social dialogue in particular has offered a sound basis for making improvements in this area.
The Framework Agreements at EU level on stress, harassment and violence at work, and the Autonomous Agreement on crystalline silica are good, practical examples. The recent Directives on working conditions in the maritime sector and the prevention of diseases due to the use of sharps in the hospital sector are also good examples of the role social dialogue can play in improving the regulatory environment using the possibilities provided by the Treaty.
Today's audience includes many experts among the stakeholders representing employers, workers and national authorities.
They will have followed developments in health and safety closely over the last few years, including the drafting and adoption of the current EU Strategy, its implementation and evaluation.
The Commission will pay close attention to your views and proposals in evaluating the current strategy and designing any future strategy. The procedure we propose will combine joint work with institutional bodies and a public consultation. Let me outline the main steps.
Timetable for action until adoption of any new strategy
First, the Commission will present the results of the final evaluation of the Strategy before the end of the year, together with an outline of the strategic priorities for health and safety at work for the forthcoming period.
At the same time, a public consultation will be launched on priorities for 2013 to 2020.
In parallel, the Commission will take account of the contributions from the European Parliament and the European Economic and Social Committee, and the opinions of the Advisory Committee and the Senior Labour Inspectors Committee.
The Commission will also work closely with the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. This will ensure we receive worthwhile contributions and our strategic approaches are compatible and mutually reinforcing.
You may rest assured that the Commission will take account of the opinions expressed and remarks made at this conference.
Its results and the upcoming consultations will help in designing a future EU strategy on health and safety at work for adoption in 2013.
I wish to thank you in advance for taking part actively.
My best wishes for a successful conference. Thank you.