Investments in occupational safety and health: fostering a culture of prevention and involving all stakeholders is key, says EESC hearing

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Good occupational safety and health (OSH) practices help to prevent absenteeism, injuries and work-related illnesses. At the same time, investing in OSH can make SMEs more successful and sustainable, provided that they receive adequate support for the implementation of such policies. This was one of the main messages of a hearing recently held in Brussels by the Economic and Social Committee (EESC) on the costs and benefits of investments in OSH.

The hearing brought together representatives from the European institutions as well as various members of trade unions and civil society organisations. Its conclusions will feed into an exploratory opinion requested by the forthcoming Finnish Presidency of the Council of the European Union.

Opening the event, Adam Rogalewski, rapporteur of the Study Group on "Summary of the costs and benefits of Investments in occupational safety and health (OSH)" (EESC), said that although Europe had made progress with regard to safety and health at work, this was still not sufficient.

Stress is more and more present in workers' lives and there are approximately 100 000 deaths every year in the EU because of work-related cancers. Workers deserve better, Mr Rogalewski maintained, insisting on the importance of education and prevention.

The new challenges for OSH in a fast-changing working environment

Rapid changes in the way we work, brought about by fast-paced technical and technological developments, are hardly helping to reduce work-related stress.

The fourth industrial revolution, artificial intelligence and the digitalisation of work, especially in the services sector, have created new forms of work with little or no protection of workers: this is the case, for example, of Uber drivers or cyclists riding for various food delivery platforms.

According to Nikita Sanaullah (European Youth Forum), pressure from employers and increased competitiveness are worse for the younger generation, which is at greater risk of being in precarious work situations, and many young people who are working do not have access to basic workers' rights (sick leave, maternity leave, social protection). She suggested investing more in work-life balance initiatives such as training in how to manage technology in order to promote the right to disconnect, and encouraging democracy at work in the form of collective bargaining to represent young people in the work place.

Antero Kiviniemi, Representative of the Finnish Presidency, announced that economic and social growth combined with citizens' wellbeing – an "economy of wellbeing" – would be one of the top priorities for Finland during its presidency.

Mental health matters for work

The profound labour market changes require that stress and mental health be addressed in occupational safety and health practices, in addition to the risk of physical injuries.

Claudia Marinetti of Mental Health Europe (MHE) urged that we work towards mentally healthy workplaces by finding ways of measuring the mental health and wellbeing of the workforce, training employers, front line managers and workers and creating a culture of openness in all organisations.

Sarah James from the GMB trade union called for better employment policies and ambitious measures to tackle these challenges, given that the current OSH approach failed to address mental health and that austerity policies further aggravated the situation by introducing cuts in mental health care.

Precarious jobs and the absence of social security, which have come to be associated with the "new economy", were also well-known stress triggers leading to potential mental health problems. One blatant example of a potential stress inducer was the zero-hours contract, used in an increasing number of jobs, under which the employer was not required to provide any amount of minimum working hours and employees did not enjoy the same rights as they would if they had traditional contracts.

Stakeholders' concerns and recommendations on investing in OSH

OSH policies should take into account the size of companies and make sure that regulation does not impose an excessive administrative burden on smaller ones, the participants stressed.

Silke Van den Bogaert of SMEunited agreed: OSH compliance disproportionally affects macro and small enterprises (MSEs) in terms of costs, because of a lack of resources, difficulties in the access to finances to make big investments and a shortage of expertise. They need financial incentives, tailored guidance and practical and cost-effective tools to better implement occupational safety and health policies.

Despite the obstacles, there are some good practices in the EU. Dietmar Elsler (European Agency for Safety and Health at Work) presented a case study in which a small company in Germany successfully implemented various OSH initiatives such as a back pain prevention programme and training for workers so as to eliminate absence due to back or muscular pain.

Concluding the event, the participants endorsed the fact that workers and trade unions needed to be involved in the evaluation and implementation of OSH.

A participatory approach pays off: it is important to build up common trust and dialogue, exchange good practices and support a life-cycle approach, stressed Mathias Maucher from the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU).