EU urges action over fall in labour inspections

The European Commission has today joined trade unions in calling on member states to address health and safety failures putting workers’ lives at risk – but stopped short of taking real action themselves. 

The ETUC published research in April showing that the number of workplace safety inspections has fallen by a fifth since 2010, with cuts in inspections of up to 55% in 17 member states. In its newly published health and safety strategy, the European Commission calls on member states to “address the downward trend in the number of labour inspections in some Member States by strengthening field inspections.”

They have also finally called on member states to classify Covid-19 as an occupational disease, more than a year after trade unions called for workers to be given extra protection against the virus. It is part of a welcome move towards a ‘vision zero’ approach to work related deaths, which is much needed at a time when:

- Many of the over 1 million victims of Covid-19 in Europe contracted the disease at work

- More than 100,000 people still die every year from work-related cancer

- The number of fatal workplace accidents is increasing

The collapse of a building in Antwerp last week killing 5 posted construction workers, and seriously injuring another 9, shows once again that stronger occupational health and safety requirements are needed.

However, the Commission’s strategy falls far short of its ambitious target in the following areas:

- It commits to placing binding exposure limits on a few more cancer-causing substances – but not for all 50 priority carcinogens which workers are widely exposed in Europe. Only 27 such carcinogens are currently subject to limits. It is regrettable that combined exposure to hazardous chemicals, endocrine disrupters and the revision of the Binding Occupational Exposure Limit (BOEL) for Respirable Crystalline Silica are absent from the Strategy.  

- No legislative initiative on mental health and musculoskeletal disorders – whereas workers really need a Directive on both of these

- No mention whatsoever of the need to have maximum working temperatures in light of climate change

- Most worryingly the strategy indicates an intention to change the protection afforded to self-employed under the Acquis – this would have the effect of endangering people working in high-risk industries such as construction where false self-employment is rife

Commenting on the strategy, ETUC Deputy General Secretary Esther Lynch said:

“It is a scandal that workplace safety inspections were at their lowest in a decade when Covid hit, which is likely to have cost lives and helped the spread of the disease. The Commission have sent a strong message to member states today that this dangerous situation can no longer be tolerated.  

“However, the Commission haven’t followed good intentions with sufficient action. Warm words aren’t good enough when the number of workplace accidents are rising and more than 100,000 people die each year of work-related cancer and ergonomic and psychosocial risks are on the rise.

“We need stronger rules and proper enforcement to ensure everyone can go to work with confidence they will actually get home safely.”

Tom Deleu, General Secretary of European building and wood workers union EFBWW, speaking after the Antwerp building collapse, added: “Occupational health and safety and protective measures should be a duty for all companies, and a right for all workers including the self-employed.”