European Commissioner responsible for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion
Occupational health and safety – good for workers, good for business
Conference on Redefining Environmental Health and Safety / Budapest
27 September 2012
Ladies and gentlemen,
Today I want to share my belief in the importance of health and safety at work, especially in today's economic and social climate.
At a time when people across the European Union are struggling to find work or keep the jobs they have, there are those who ask whether we really need rules and specific action on health and safety at work.
They ask whether occupational health and safety is really relevant in the current climate.
To answer that question and understand EU action in this field better, I want to look back at how health and safety at work has developed in the European Union.
Once the European Communities were established in the 1950s, the need for a global approach to workers’ health and safety became evident.
Even if some Member States made improvements to their occupational health and safety situation, the pace of change varied from Member State to another, and the measures taken to protect the health and safety of their workers differed widely.
The progressive harmonisation of some aspects of policy to protect occupational health and safety gradually received Community attention.
The first Community Programme of Action in this field was adopted in 1978. During the 1980s, it became obvious that for the sake of fair competition, productivity and worker protection, the Single Market needed minimum requirements on health and safety at work.
The specific legal basis introduced by the European Single Act adopted in 1987 gave fresh impetus to action in this policy area.
It led to an extensive set of directives, starting with the 1989 Framework Directive, which laid down minimum requirements for health and safety at work and imposed an obligation on the employer to ensure the safety and health of the workers in all aspects relating to the work.
Since then, a number of specific directives covering various risks and sectors, have been adopted and implemented by the Member States.
This body of legislation is widely recognised as among the most advanced in the world.
Great impetus was also provided by the comprehensive strategic approach introduced by the European Strategies on Health and Safety at Work.
To give fresh momentum to the policy on health and safety at work, the European Commission adopted a Community strategy for the period 2002 to 2006.
This was based on an overall approach to well-being at work which took account of changes in the workplace and the emergence of new risks, particularly those of a psychosocial nature.
It relaunched prevention policy at national level, presented coherent, convincing arguments in favour of a partnership to achieve shared objectives and obliged the parties concerned to give consideration to achieving them.
The success of this Strategy led to a new one for the period 2007 to 2012, entitled "Improving quality and productivity at work".
The general aim was to achieve a continuous, sustainable, uniform reduction in accidents at work and occupational illness.
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 that 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 accident rates continue to decline.
More precisely, in those three years the accident rate fell in 15 Member States, was stable in four, and rose in only three.
The incidence of accidents at work is therefore likely to be significantly lower in 2012 than it was five years ago, and there is reason to believe that the EU Strategy has contributed positively to that.
Today we can say that the European Union's health and safety at work policy has become one of our most important social policy areas.
Thanks to the extensive EU legislation implemented in the Member States, statistics on accidents at work show that workplaces across the EU are now much safer and workers are better protected than in the past.
The two EU strategies on health and safety at work have certainly contributed to this success.
The EU’s policy on health and safety at work has an international dimension that I want to outline briefly.
There are such challenges as how to prevent the two million fatalities that occur across the world each year from work-related accidents and disease.
Quite apart from the human suffering involved, there is the related economic cost, which amounts to 4% of annual global GDP.
There is the challenge of achieving sustainable growth while working to achieve both economic and social goals side by side.
Effective responses to those challenges rely on global and bilateral efforts to develop the right framework and share knowledge, experience and good practice in this area.
To that end, the EU conducts policy dialogue and practical projects with its partners.
This month, for example, the third EU-China dialogue on Occupational Safety and Health took place in Beijing.
A project on health and safety in high-risk sectors like mines was set in motion with China, and other actions are putting into practice the Memorandum of Understanding signed three years ago.
Earlier this month, the second Asia-Europe Occupational Health and Safety Symposium in Singapore discussed preventive occupational safety and health culture among SMEs.
We attach great importance to these dialogues with our international partners, as it is in our mutual strategic interest to develop an understanding of the transformations taking place in our societies.
We also work together to promote international labour standards on occupational health and safety and cooperate with the ILO to that end.
Ladies and gentlemen,
You will remember that I started off by asking whether we really need specific action on health and safety at work at EU level.
Setting aside the obvious need to reduce human suffering, I would point out that investing in occupational health and safety is also good for business.
A sound working environment 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.
EU companies depend for their survival and expansion on a committed workforce, which will only thrive in a high-quality working environment where the working conditions are safe and healthy.
There is a continuous need to improve the workplace environment by investing in prevention of accidents and diseases caused by work. There are always emerging new risks and we need to tackle them.
According to the fifth European Survey on Working Conditions carried out 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.
While that represents an improvement over the 31% in 2000 and shows we are going in the right direction, it also shows that there is still much work to do.
The Commission will be presenting the results of the final evaluation of the current health and safety Strategy by the end of the year, together with an outline of the strategic priorities for health and safety at work for the forthcoming period.
There will also be a public consultation on the priorities in the health and safety area for 2013 to 2020. I hope many of you will also contribute to this consultation.
At this stage, on the basis of the available results of the evaluation of the Strategy, we are considering giving priority to the following main areas:
Tackling health issues and preventing work-related health problems more effectively: these include occupational and work-related diseases, work-related musculo-skeletal disorders, work-related psycho-social risks, and the potential risks of new technologies;
More effective implementation of EU legislation, in particular in SMEs and especially in micro-enterprises;
A special effort over the next few years to make working life sustainable. We 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.
The results of the evaluation of the current Strategy and the upcoming consultations will help in the design of an EU Strategy on health and safety at work for 2013 to 2020, which could be adopted next year.
Health and safety policy can make a significant contribution to achieving the objectives of the Europe 2020 Strategy, helping to foster smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, and in particular increasing employability and reducing early departures from the labour market.
I wish you a very successful conference.