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Modernisation of EU policy on health and safety at work

12 January 2017
by eub2 -- last modified 12 January 2017

The European Commission took action on 10 January 2017 to promote and modernise Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) in the EU.


How are workers currently protected under EU legislation?

Article 153 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union foresees that the EU can adopt directives to protect workers' health and safety. The EU legislation on occupational safety and health (OSH) consists mainly of a Framework Directive, setting the general scope of application, and 23 related directives which focus on specific aspects of safety and health at work. The related Directives tailor the principles of the Framework Directive to specific sectors (for example construction), tasks (for example the manual handling of loads), specific hazards at work (for example exposure to dangerous substances) or specific categories of workers (for example pregnant workers or young workers).

These Directives set out minimum requirements and principles, such as the principles of prevention and risk assessment with resulting protection measures, as well as the responsibilities of employers and employees. Member States are allowed to adopt stricter rules for the protection of workers in national law. Therefore, even though legislative requirements in the field of safety and health at work can vary across EU Member States, a minimum level of protection is ensured throughout the EU.

What is the European Commission presenting today?

EU legislation on health and safety at work exists for over 25 years. Ever since, the EU has been a frontrunner in high standards of worker protection against health and safety risks at work. To keep this up,today the European Commission is taking action to modernise EU OSH legislation and policy, in order to better protect workers on the work floor. The aim is also to focus more on results and less on paperwork, to facilitate compliance with the legislation by SME's and micro-enterprises. The proposed measures are based on a broad evaluation of the OSH framework, and follows up on the European Parliament 2015 report on the EU Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work and feedback from the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.

What are the main results of the evaluation?

The evaluation shows that the EU OSH legislation is the reference frame for national OSH rules and overall remains fit for purpose. EU OSH policy is contributing, in cooperation with Member States, to the objective of improving the health and safety of workers in the EU.

Nevertheless, the evaluation also pointed out key points to improve the OSH policy and legal framework:

  • by stepping up the fight against occupational cancer, which remains the first cause of work-related deaths in the EU;
  • by helping businesses, in particular micro-enterprises and SMEs, to comply with rules on health and safety at work, and to address issues of growing concern such as psychosocial risks, musculoskeletal disorders and ageing;
  • by removing or updating outdated rules and improving enforcement on the ground, in cooperation with Member States, social partners, and stakeholders.

What is the Commission proposing to modernise the EU OSH legislation and policy?

The Commission will focus on three priorities:

  1. Addressing occupational cancer as a priority challenge, therefore the Commission proposes changes to the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive, establishing or reviewing exposure limit values for further cancer causing chemicals (or 'carcinogens') at the workplace. The Commission made a first proposal on 13 May 2016 to introduce new exposure limits for 13 carcinogens. A second proposal has followed today for 7 carcinogens, improving the protection of 4 million workers in the EU by acting on further chemical agents.
  2. The Commission wants to help businesses, in particular small and micro-enterprises, to comply with OSH rules. To that end, the Commission published today practical guidelines and tools to help businesses apply health and safety rules. The text of the guidance paper can be found here. The Commission will continue to identify good practices to support microenterprises and SMEs in applying OSH, in cooperation with the Member States (e.g. financial incentives, digital tools, etc.).
  3. The Commission will launch and conclude within two years a programme for removing or updating outdated provisions in some OSH Directives. This will clarify the rules and reduce administrative burden for businesses and enforcement agencies, but only where it allows maintaining or improving workers' protection. Building on the strong tradition of tripartite dialogue on OSH at national and EU level, these updates will be prepared in close cooperation with social partners and governments' experts. Moreover, the Commission will initiate a peer-review process to allow Member States to learn from each other's good practices in reducing administrative burden in national legislation while maintaining workers' protection.

Which benefits will these actions bring?

The actions outlined above will allow for a modern OSH policy that consists of clear, up-to-date rules at EU and national level – which are effectively applied on the ground.

Investment in OSH makes a lot of sense. It improves people's lives by preventing work-related illness and accidents and also has a tangible positive effect on EU economies.It leads to improved business productivity and performance. At macroeconomic level, it contributes to national competitiveness. Different studies prove that the employer will have a return in double of every euro spent on OSH.

More specifically, for workers, the updates to be made to the EU OSH legislation will further improve their protection on the work floor, by ensuring better compliance with the legislation, also by SME's and micro-enterprises, and by taking legislative action to limit exposure to cancer-causing chemicals (see proposal of the Commission presented today).

Businesses, especially small ones, will benefit from clearer and simpler rules to follow. They will also receive more support, tools and guidance on how to effectively protect their workers' health and safety.

Clearer and more up-to-date rules will be easier to apply and will facilitate the enforcement of the rules by the EU Member States. Member States will also profit from the peer-review process by learning from each other's good practices in reducing administrative burden in national legislation.

Which actions are asked or required from Member States and other actors involved?

In the field of OSH, the EU sets minimum requirements which Member States can go beyond to adopt more detailed provisions which bring additional protection for workers. In doing so, it is essential that the focus is on increased protection and that no unnecessary administrative burden is added on companies. Member States are encouraged to screen their legislative frameworks in order to simplify while maintaining or improving protection – many countries have indeed been doing so over the last years. The Commission will facilitate the mutual learning in this respect through a peer review exercise.

In addition, legislative action needs to be followed up through effective implementation on the work floor. It is vital that Member States fulfil their obligation to ensure monitoring and enforcement on the ground and that they secure the necessary resources to do so. Cooperation between social partners, trade organisations and inspectorates is essential for the prevention of accidents and disease, notably in micro and small enterprises. The Commission will ensure that the EU OSH Directives are properly enforced and will at the same time reinforce its support for better standards and guidance in particular through the Senior Labour Inspectors Committee.

Finally, a culture of compliance in businesses of all sizes and amongst workers is what truly makes the difference on the ground. Such a culture of compliance must be forged from early days of education onwards, be it in professional education or management training. It must be nourished through permanent awareness raising efforts and exchanges of best practices, and kept on alert through inspections which ideally go beyond mere checking and sanctioning and help identify better ways of compliance. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) is a main actor to support the Commission's action, in particular as regards the support of micro and small enterprises in effectively applying the rules (e.g. by its online interactive Risk Assessment tool (OiRA)).

What is the Commission proposing as regards psychosocial risks, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and ageing?

The guidance paper published today will help businesses to address these issues of growing concern. It provides concrete tips on managing psychosocial and ergonomic risks. The Commission will also develop relevant principles for labour inspectors with regard to age-sensitive risk assessment.

How have the social partners and stakeholders been consulted?

During the evaluation, the Commission paid particular attention to involve social partners, Member States and stakeholders. For example, Member States were obliged to consult the social partners before submitting their national implementation reports to the Commission. In addition, an independent contractor carried out interviews with a large number of EU-level and national OSH stakeholders. The Commission also consulted the Advisory Committee on Safety and Health at Work (ACSH), where Member States and social partners are represented, and the Senior Labour Inspectors Committee, which gathers the labour inspection services of each Member State, throughout the evaluation process.

What EU funding is available to support health and safety at work?

EU funds, notably the European Social Fund (ESF) and the Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI) programme, are available to support healthy and safe workplaces in the Member States.

For example, the ESF supports education and training of healthcare professionals and information activities on health and safety at work. The EaSI programme mainly supports analytical activities in the area of occupational safety and health, such as data collection, evaluations, studies supporting impact assessment, as well as mutual learning (e.g. peer reviews) activities between Member States.