New study reveals challenges for effective worker representation in occupational safety and health management

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In a new report, EU-OSHA details the findings of its qualitative study on worker participation and consultation in occupational safety and health (OSH). The study — a follow-up to EU-OSHA’s second European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER-2) — suggests that worker representation on OSH is declining across Europe, while management-led arrangements for OSH participation are on the increase.

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A strong employer commitment to participatory approaches to OSH, supportive worker organisations within or outside establishments, and well-trained, well-informed worker representatives are key to effective worker representation.

This comparative study is based on in-depth interviews with management and worker representatives from 143 establishments, of various sizes and from different sectors, situated in seven EU Member States. The findings provide the most complete picture to date of how workers’ OSH interests are represented in establishments across Europe.

EU-OSHA’s Director, Dr Christa Sedlatschek, emphasises that ‘despite contextual differences between Member States, one thing is clear: a strong employer commitment to participatory approaches to OSH, supportive worker organisations within or outside establishments, and well-trained, well-informed worker representatives are key to effective worker representation.’

Examples of such worker-centred representation could be found in all of the countries studied, particularly in establishments in Sweden, and, to a lesser extent, Belgium and the Netherlands. However, even in these countries, highly effective practices for worker participation in OSH were seen in only a small number of the establishments surveyed, suggesting that good worker representation is far from the norm.

All workers in the EU have an entitlement to OSH representation, so why does practice in workplaces appear to diverge from statutory provisions? The answer is complex, but it is at least partly due to the legislative measures in place on the representation of workers on OSH. Many of these measures are facilitatory rather than compulsory, and the evidence indicates that regulatory inspectors rarely enforce worker representation in establishments.

The findings also indicate that there has been an increase in the use of management systems approaches to OSH across Europe, with a manager or specialist responsible for safety and health management. While some examples of good practice were found, there were many examples of worker representation becoming less effective in these situations, as worker representatives found they were less able to be autonomous, acting instead as the ‘eyes and ears’ of safety managers.

Several contextual factors influence worker representation practices, including the nature of national statutory requirements, workplace size and sector, the collective bargaining arrangements in place, and the wider societal and economic conditions. In Sweden, Belgium and the Netherlands, where trade unions and other organised labour institutions continue to have a strong presence, establishments with effective worker representation practices were more prevalent. In Sweden, for example, the fulfilment of statutory obligations is monitored by inspectors who have regular contact with worker representatives. In Greece and Spain, where the recent economic downturn has had a particularly detrimental impact, there is evidence of reduced resources for OSH and a perception among interviewees that worker representation is, at best, a low priority.

Links:

Read the report, summary and seven country reports
Explore the findings of the enterprise survey with the survey dashboard

Notes to editor:

1. The second edition of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER-2) collected responses from almost 50,000 enterprises on occupational safety and health (OSH) management and workplace risks, with a particular focus on worker participation and psychosocial risks.

For the first time, agriculture and fishery enterprises and micro enterprises of 5-10 employees were included. Questions were addressed to those who best knew about OSH management in the organisation. Respondents answered questions on the major risk factors in their enterprises and reported on how and why they manage them, as well as identifying barriers to prevention.

The report Worker participation in the management of occupational safety and health: qualitative evidence from the second European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER-2) presents the findings of a qualitative study of worker representation on OSH in the European Union, a follow-up to ESENER-2.

The study focuses on the representation of workers’ interests in safety and health as experienced by representatives themselves, by their fellow workers and by their employers and managers. It is based on in-depth interviews with these participants in 143 different establishments in seven EU Member States: Belgium, Estonia, Greece, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

The large majority of the cases are establishments that were surveyed in ESENER-2. They were drawn equally from three main sectors (the private production sector, the public sector and the private services sector) and three size classes (small, medium and large). The analysis was supported by a review of the literature and additional interviews with informants in key organisations, as well as by a further quantitative analysis of relevant ESENER-2 data.

2. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) contributes to making Europe a safer, healthier and more productive place to work. The Agency researches, develops, and distributes reliable, balanced, and impartial safety and health information and organises pan-European awareness raising campaigns. Set up by the European Union in 1994 and based in Bilbao, Spain, the Agency brings together representatives from the European Commission, Member State governments, employers’ and workers’ organisations, as well as leading experts in each of the EU-28 Member States and beyond.

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Birgit Müller
European Agency for Safety and Health at Work
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