There are no acceptable levels of workplace fatalities—a focus on prevention is needed.
On an average day, nine or ten people in the European Union die due to accidents at work.
Health and safety at work is a fundamental right. Doing one’s job and making a living should not lead to injury or loss of life. Yet every year 3-4,000 European workers go to work without coming home to their families.
This is unacceptable—whether from a legal, political or moral point of view—especially since these accidents can be prevented. It is time for an EU ‘vision zero’ on fatal occupational accidents.
There are differences among member states in the number of casualties but no country is unaffected and the decreasing trend observed in the past decade has been reversed. And while the highest incidence of fatal accidents is found in mining and quarrying, rates are also high in construction, agriculture, forestry, fishing, transport and storage. There is thus an urgent need for a co-ordinated effort—a strategic and inclusive approach—to tackle the problem.
The European Commission in its work programme for 2021 announced a new EU Strategic Framework (2021-2027), with the aim of improving occupational safety and health (OSH), including helping to prevent workers from suffering accidents at work. We strongly welcome this initiative and the importance given to health and safety at work by the commissioner for jobs and social rights, Nicolas Schmit.
The ambition should be bold. The new EU strategy should include a vision zero.
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National occupational safety and health strategies, which exist because of the EU strategy, should also include a vision zero—every EU country should have a strategy for zero workplace deaths. Developments in member states should be monitored and discussed within the framework of the European Semester.
The vision zero should address the underlying causes of work-related accidents—such as lack, or neglect, of safety measures—and promote a culture of prevention. It should be implemented on the basis of an action plan, at EU and national level, which should include targets and concrete measures:
- regular workplace inspections in sectors most affected and of dangerous elements, such as mobile machines and vehicles;
- follow-up on companies’ and employers’ duties and efforts to implement a systematic OSH plan to prevent accidents;
- efficient laws, regulations, guidelines and practices, developed together with social partners, enforced by labour inspectorates and trade union health and safety representatives;
- adequate support, resources and training for such inspectorates;
- awareness-raising campaigns, exchanging information and best practice, and
- improved analysis of, and reporting on, fatal accidents at work and their underlying causes, to help employers make correct risk assessments and facilitate co-operation among the relevant actors to strengthen safety and prevention.
The new EU strategic framework will appear over the coming days as the Portuguese EU presidency concludes. Vision zero could be launched under its auspices. A first stocktaking of the initiative could be made in 2023.
Window of opportunity
A vision zero might seem unrealistic. But we cannot accept that not all workers in the EU arrive home from work safe and sound. Setting a common goal—a vision—can make a real difference. To succeed, long-term commitment from all stakeholders is needed, as well as adequate funding, resources and information.
There is a window of opportunity for the commission to present a plan for zero workplace deaths, injuries, cancer and occupational diseases. By working towards a common vision of a Europe without occupational accidents and diseases, we can together take concrete action to ensure all workers enjoy the right to a safe working environment. Let us together make this happen!