Every year around a thousand people in Europe die as a result of falls at the workplace. Others die in explosions, while tens of thousands suffer injuries as a result of exposure to noise, vibration or carcinogenic agents such as asbestos. The European Union has the power to lay down minimum standards on health and safety at work and over the last five years has adopted several directives. The European Parliament has often managed to raise the standard of protection for workers above the level proposed initially.
Even though the accident rate at work fell by almost 10% between 1994 and 1998, the figures are still high: almost 5500 deaths a year and 4.8 million accidents resulting in more than three days off work. Existing Community legislation has now been strengthened by several new directives. These lay down minimum standards but still leave Member States free to introduce even stricter measures.
Asbestos: beware of the penalties!
Lung cancer and mesothelioma are 10 and 20 times more common respectively in people exposed to asbestos than in the rest of the population. Some studies indicate that in the next 30 years, several hundred thousand workers will be affected by the long-term consequences of absorbing asbestos. New European rules were adopted in 2002. They supplement and strengthen legislation introduced in 1983 and are due to be incorporated into national law by April 2006. From that date any activity that exposes workers to asbestos will be banned, with the exception of demolition work and asbestos removal work.
At Parliament's request, the limit values for exposure were greatly reduced and stronger measures on prevention and training introduced. MEPs also insisted on specific rest periods, as working conditions are extremely difficult when breathing apparatus has to be worn. And Parliament saw to it that, for the first time in a directive on workers’ safety, Member States will have to apply "effective, proportionate and dissuasive" penalties if the law is flouted.
Noise: 87 decibels maximum
Exposure to noise can certainly damage hearing but it can also pose a general risk to health. Noise also increases the risk of accidents because warning signals may sometimes not be heard and mechanical problems not be noticed. According to a study by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, 28% of EU workers are exposed to a level of noise that makes conversation difficult. In 2002 Parliament approved a directive that sets the limit value for daily exposure at 87 decibels, a lower level than had been proposed, and imposes certain requirements on employers. MEPs insisted that workers should be entitled to preventive hearing checks and individual hearing protectors at an earlier stage than was envisaged by the Council of Ministers. However, Parliament also amended the legislation so that it treats the music and entertainment industries as a special case.
Vibration affects one worker in four
Around 24% of EU workers suffer from the effects of mechanical vibration, it was announced as new EU legislation was launched to deal with the problem. In extractive industries such as quarrying and coal mining, and also in the building industry, transport and agriculture, vibration caused by tools or machinery can cause injuries to joints, neurological damage or spine trauma. A directive adopted in 2002, and due to be enacted in national legislation by July 2005, sets limit values for vibration to the hands, arms and the body as a whole. In this legislation, Parliament succeeded in lowering the authorised thresholds and introducing new requirements to provide information to workers and monitor their health.
Reducing the risk of explosions
A new directive adopted in 1999, and due to become national law in June 2003, lays down standard minimum requirements for protecting workers from the dangers of explosive gases and "atmospheres". It introduces general measures for preventing explosions as well as rules for employers on safety, inspections, risk assessment and classification of risk zones. One example is a standardised European warning sign for danger areas. At Parliament's request, the Commission is to draw up a best practice guide, to be observed by the Member States when devising policies in this area.
500 000 falls at work every year
Almost 10% of all accidents at work are the result of falls. In the European Union as a whole it is estimated that there are almost 500 000 falls a year in the workplace caused by faulty use of scaffolding or ladders. This results in about 40 000 serious injuries and 1000 deaths every year. Against this background Parliament approved a directive in 2001 that seeks to ensure this equipment is used by workers more safely. MEPs succeeded in raising the standards on risk assessment, training of workers and the safety of some categories of equipment. The directive is due to become national law by July 2004.
Protecting the self-employed
People who are self-employed are rarely covered by health-and-safety legislation but are often exposed to similar risks. Many self-employed people work in high-risk sectors such as agriculture, fisheries, building or transport but are often not covered by existing legislation. The EU has therefore issued a recommendation to the Member States urging them to take voluntary measures to improve the situation of the self-employed. MEPs welcomed this step but said it did not go far enough. They argued that there should be no discrimination between employees and the self-employed as regards health and safety at work. The recommendation was sent to the Member States in February 2003. If it does not have sufficient impact within four years, MEPs think the EU should take binding measures.
A general strategy
In a resolution adopted in October 2002, Parliament backed the idea of a general Community strategy for adapting to changes in work and society. MEPs listed their priorities, including a demand for health and safety legislation to be extended to all excluded categories, such as military personnel, the self-employed, domestic workers and home-workers. They urged that new legislation be brought forward on workplace ergonomics, handling operations and chemical and biological hazards. Lastly, Parliament called for efforts to enact and apply the body of Community law in the accession countries where standards of safety and health at work are unsatisfactory.