European Commissioner responsible for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion
Speech: "EU policy on health and safety at work: myths and facts"
Institute of Occupational Safety and Health 2013 conference/London
26 February 2013
Ladies and gentlemen,
I extend my warm greetings to you all and my thanks to the organisers for their invitation.
Today I want to share my belief in the importance of health and safety at work, especially in today's economic and social climate.
Since the 1987 Single European Act, the Treaties recognise that the EU and the Member States share competence for policy initiatives in the area of occupational safety and health.
Thanks to combined action at EU and national level, a shared culture of prevention has developed over the last 20 years.
A major body of legislation has been put in place and the Member States have worked to implement and enforce it consistently. I would like to mention that today the European Commission has adopted a proposal to better protect workers from risks linked to exposure to chemicals at the workplace.
The social partners play a key role 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.
Furthermore, EU Health and Safety Strategies adopted in 2002 and 2007 have helped to consolidate a holistic culture of work-related accident and disease prevention.
As a result, accidents at work are at a historically low level, and the EU’s occupational safety and health standards and performance are a global reference for the international community.
Yet we continue to hear the same myths.
Like "the impact of bad occupational safety and health management is not significant."
And "Sound health and safety at work management is too expensive for companies, especially SMEs."
And "The EU over-regulates and over-inspects in this field."
You also hear people say occupational safety and health imposes a heavy administrative burden on business and is an obstacle to the EU’s economic competitiveness.
What I want to do today, ladies and gentlemen, is debunk some of those myths and give you some objective facts.
Let's take the first myth about the negligible impact of bad occupational safety and health management.
Contrary to popular belief, the consequences of bad management in this area are very serious — not only for any victims, but also for employees generally, as well as employers, the government and the general public.
Although they were much lower than in previous years, the number of non-fatal and fatal accidents in the EU in 2010 was still very high.
And every death or injury is something to deplore.
The latest Eurostat estimates put them at almost 4 400 fatal and over 3.3 million non-fatal accidents.
But those data cover 26 Member States only, and they do not cover all accidents.
And they only include serious accidents resulting in more than three days’ absence from work, so they tend to underestimate the facts.
According to an ad hoc module of the Eurostat Labour Force Survey covering the 27 Member States in 2007, 23 million persons aged 15 to 64 who were working or had worked before reported a work-related health problem in the previous 12 months.
That is approximately one in ten members of the EU workforce.
And work-related health problems were estimated to have resulted in at least 367 million calendar days of sick leave.
Those cases of work-related accidents and ill-health translate into a very substantial cost.
A study by the European Agency for Safety and Health and Work puts it at between 2.6 and 3.8% of GDP.
That should impress even the most intransigent opponents of occupational health and safety!
The second myth claims that occupational safety and health measures are just too expensive and involve too heavy an administrative burden.
But the evidence is that systematically applying well-planned safety and health measures can bring a significant return on investment at company level.
According to a 2011 Commission study, the median value of the profitability index — that is, the ratio of pay-off to investment in a particular project — ranges from 1.29 to 2.89 for investments in occupational safety and health.
Apart from reducing costs related to absenteeism, accidents and disease, occupational safety and health measures also help to improve the company’s image, its position on the labour market and customer satisfaction.
They also reduce employee turnover and increase productivity.
Academic research also shows that high-quality working conditions that trigger job satisfaction may indirectly influence workers’ health, and that improvements in job satisfaction over time appear to stop workers’ health deteriorating.
Occupational safety and health policy at EU and national level contributes significantly to reducing work-related accidents and ill-health.
For example, from 1994 to 2010 there was a 56% fall in the incidence rate of non-fatal accidents at work and a 63% fall in fatal accidents in the 15 Member States for which EU-level data are available for the period.
What is more, there is no statistical evidence that economies with lower health and safety standards are more competitive.
On the contrary, research by the International Labour Organisation suggests that, by and large, the countries where working conditions are among the safest also have the best competitiveness ratings.
Figures combining the selected competitiveness rankings of the International Institute for Management Development against ILO's own occupational health and safety rankings show a strong correlation between high safety and high competitiveness.
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 new challenges and emerging new risks which we need to tackle. Our experience shows there is a clear role for EU-led action to help the Member States tackle those challenges and risks more effectively.
And now, let me give you an overview about the next steps in the health and safety area.
First of all, I would like share a few remarks on the implementation of the EU Strategy on safety and health at work for 2007 to 2012. Its aim was to reduce by 25% the total incidence rate of accidents at work across the EU.
To meet that aim, it sought to:
ensure that the EU legislation is properly implemented
support SMEs in implementing the legislation in force
adjust the legislation to changes at the workplace
promote the development and implementation of national strategies
encourage workers to change their behaviour and employers to adopt health-focused approaches, and last but not least,
promote health and safety work at international level.
The final evaluation of the Strategy, which the Commission will be publishing in the coming weeks, will show whether the Strategy has actually managed to reduce accidents at work by 25%.
The indications are that it has.
But a precise assessment will only be possible once official Eurostat data are available for 2012.
And that will — in principle — not be before 2014.
So far, the figures available show that accident rates continue to decline.
So setting a quantitative target for reducing work accidents seems to have worked.
It has raised the visibility of this policy area and encouraged the Member States to focus on measures to bring the accident rate down.
One of the main successes of efforts to improve SMEs’ implementation of the legislation during the period covered by the Strategy is the development of the Online Interactive Risk Assessment tool.
This tool is a cost-free web-based application developed by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.
It allows a growing network of partners to develop tailor-made risk assessment tools for micro- and small enterprises.
In particular it helps the sectoral social partners — the employers' and employees' organisations — and the national authorities — such as the ministries, labour inspectorates, occupational safety and health institutes — to produce sector-specific risk assessment tools.
The Agency also carried out pan-European awareness campaigns on risk assessment and safe maintenance between 2007 and 2012.
A campaign is currently under way on working together for risk prevention.
This emphasises the importance of leadership by top management and owners working in tandem with active worker participation in order to improve risk prevention at the workplace.
These campaigns have helped to raise awareness of the need to improve occupational health and safety and mobilise the actors concerned.
The European Social Fund plays a crucial role in supporting Member State initiatives to develop a culture of prevention in the field of health and safety at work.
The Strategy called on the Member States to make wider use of the possibilities and funding it offered for training of employers and workers in health and safety at work.
In particular, it concentrated on training young entrepreneurs in occupational health and safety management and on raising workers’ awareness of risks in companies and how to prevent and combat them.
The evaluation of the Strategy appears to endorse the value of an EU dimension to policy in this area, and confirm the need for a new strategy.
The stakeholders considered the Strategy for 2007 to 2012 highly worthwhile because it provided a framework for coordination and gave a common sense of direction.
That is also true here in the United Kingdom, which has a good health and safety record.
According to the latest Health and Safety Executive Annual Statistics Report, over the past decade, new cases of self-reported work-related ill-health have generally fallen.
And self-reported non-fatal injuries have fallen by an average of 6% each year since 2003, as estimated by the Labour Force Survey.
Ladies and gentlemen,
The UK’s good results cannot be seen in isolation from the EU legislation and Strategies, which provide a sound basis for consistency across the Single Market and for preventing social dumping.
That is an important consideration for UK companies and their competitiveness.
The EU Strategy has contributed to improving the implementation of safety and health legislation and has helped to clarify and interpret the rules.
In March, the Commission will present the final evaluation of the Strategy. At the same time, it will also launch a three-month public consultation to indentify the next priorities in the health and safety area. This is in line with our policy of giving citizens and stakeholders the opportunity to put forward their views, proposals and priorities on topics of high and shared interest. I hope you will also send contributions to the public consultation.
At this stage, independently of the results of the public consultation, we are considering giving priority to:
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 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.
At a later stage, the Commission will also conduct a full evaluation of EU occupational health and safety legislation.
The findings, which are expected in 2015, will provide an opportunity for seeing how its application can be made simpler, particularly for SMEs.
Europe needs to continue improving working conditions, but future work in this area cannot ignore the broader economic, employment and demographic situation.
Ladies and gentlemen,
I want to wind up with a simple but all-important message.
Investing in occupational safety and health pays — even and especially during a crisis.
A safe working environment is a key factor in competitiveness and it can help meet the EU’s targets for smart, sustainable and inclusive grow. It plays a key role in ensuring a sustainable long working life for healthy and skilled workers. This is crucial if we want to address the problems of an ageing workforce in terms of competitiveness and the financial sustainability of our social security systems. Given the current economic and financial crisis, Europe must continue to invest in the quality of work, while ensuring that regulatory costs are proportionate to the benefit of adequate protection from health and safety risks, in particular in micro-enterprises and SMEs.
The European Commission is and will remain strongly committed to improving working conditions.
Improving working conditions is good for workers, for companies, for social welfare systems and for society as a whole.
That is why all stakeholders need to be actively involved.
Thank you for your attention.