EU initiative on occupation health lacks action plan against harassment at work
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EU initiative on occupation health lacks action plan against harassment at work

The European Commission launched this week a new initiative to promote Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) in the EU. The main focus is on preventing accidents and work-related illness. Actions to improve the socio-psychological environment at work and prevent harassment are largely absent in the initiative.

“Today (10 January) we present a clear action plan for sound occupational safety and health at the workplace in the 21st century with rules that are clear, up-to-date and effectively applied on the ground,” said Marianne Thyssen, Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility.

She added that “We also deliver on our commitment to fight work-related cancer, by addressing exposure to seven more cancer-causing chemicals which will improve protection of some 4 million workers in Europe. We join forces with Member States and stakeholders to create a healthy and safe workplace for all.”

As regards work work-related accidents, impressive progress has indeed been made. According to the Commission, since 2008, the number of workers who died in an accident at work dropped by almost one fourth, and the percentage of EU workers reporting at least one health problem caused or made worse by work decreased by nearly 10%.

However, challenges remain large: it is estimated that about 160 000 Europeans die from illnesses related to their work every year. Keeping workers safe and healthy in the workplace by safeguarding and updating the high European standards is a therefore a top priority.

Besides setting exposure limits for cancer causing chemicals, the Commission intends to help businesses, notably small and micro enterprises, in their efforts to comply with health and safety rules.

The Commission also published a guidance paper for employers with practical tips aimed at facilitating their risk assessment and at making it more effective. It includes advice on how to deal with rapidly increasing OSH risks such as psychosocial, ergonomic or ageing related-risks.

Harassment at work

The guidance includes a section on “stress at work”, however without stressing that much of it depends on harassment or mobbing. The “zero accident vision” in the guidance refers mainly to the prevention of physical accidents and the use of dangerous substances.

“Stress at work may have negative psychological, physical and social impacts and result in burnout, depression and in extreme cases even suicide. In addition to mental health problems, workers suffering from prolonged stress can go on to develop serious physical health problems such as cardiovascular disease or musculoskeletal problems.”

The consequences for the work place are serious since working under pressure leads to more accidents, more absence from work and higher turn-over, according to the guidance paper.

A recent audit report by the Swedish state audit (RIR 2016:23) confirmed that the number of work-related illnesses due to social and organizational causes have increased in recent years. Stress and psychological illnesses have become the most common work-related illness.

European social partners

Despite the seriousness of harassment at work, there is no binding and harmonized EU legislation in place to deal with the problem, and prevention measures vary by member state. The current Framework Directive 89/391/EEC on occupational health and safety deals mainly with work accidents.

Instead there is an “autonomous” Framework Agreement on Harassment and Violence at Work, adopted in 2007 by the social partners at European level, representing employers’ organizations and trade unions. The agreement is not binding and has reportedly been implemented unevenly by the member states.

The implementation of this agreement is currently followed-up by a subgroup created by the social partners (2015 – 2017  work programme). The subgroup was supposed to report regularly to a Social Dialogue Committee where the Commission is represented. At the time of writing, The Brussels Times had not received access to the reporting by the subgroup.

Asked by The Brussels Times, the Commission declined to clarify whether earlier ideas on replacing the Framework Agreement between the European social partners by a directive on the prevention of harassment at work – which would be transposable into national law – have been removed from the agenda.

M. Apelblat

The Brussels Times