The pandemic demands moving beyond the fragmented and compartmentalised approach to occupational health and safety in the EU.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought occupational health and safety (OHS) to the fore and has revealed the pressing need for an effective steer from the European Union. It has laid bare the negative implications of precarious, non-standard work; it has precipitated technology-induced changes in work arrangements (such as digital work), with attendant risks; it has intensified psychosocial stressors, and it has put the spotlight on glaring inadequacies in the protection of frontline workers.
It has also revealed the neglected gender dimension in OHS. Women constitute the majority of nurses, community health workers and carers, seriously exposed to the risk of infection.
Experts have recently put forward short- and long-term measures which would reduce exposure to work hazards intensified by the pandemic (with a strong focus on health and social care). Missing however in this debate—yet crucial for effective realisation of many of these recommendations—is the need to move beyond a fragmented, stop-and-go EU approach and place health and safety squarely within social protection. This would enable a holistic strategy of risk prevention and health promotion, addressing old and new workplace hazards and overall wellbeing. With the current Strategic Framework for Occupational Health and Safety (2014-2020) expiring at the year end, the challenge lies ahead.
Twists and turns
Over the decades, action at European level on OHS has seen twists and turns, not all conducive to progress. In the run-up to the single market, the 1989 OHS Framework Directive was influenced by the ‘social Europe’ vision of the then European Commission president, Jacques Delors. It shifted the emphasis from regulation of single conditions (a particular substance, say) to more comprehensive procedural requirements for preventing and mitigating a broad range of occupational hazards (physical and psychosocial).
This took into account ‘technical safety as well as general prevention of ill-health’, through supranational co-ordination. It paved the way for an OHS policy embedded in social protection, which could span the spectrum from prevention of work-related hazards to healthy lifestyle at work, wellbeing and public health.
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But the momentum was shortlived, as soon neoliberal priorities diluted such a wide-ranging vision. Since the 1990s concern about the economic impact of regulation has taken central stage.
The ‘Better Regulation’ strategy adopted in the mid-2000s, followed by the REFIT (Regulatory Fitness and Performance) programme launched in 2012, subjected OHS to a narrowly-understood, profit-driven logic of cost-benefit trade-offs and put the brake on EU regulatory action. The ‘one in, one out’ approach to legislation by the current commission—presuming a ceiling on the ‘burden’ of regulation—treads the same path.
Yet the occupational risks related to ergonomics, hazardous substances—such as carcinogens and mutagens—and (rising) psychosocial work stressors have become far more severe over recent decades. Meanwhile, the growth and complexity of supply and subcontracting chains greatly complicates OHS responsibilities. And the pandemic has added much more immediate and pressing concerns.
Thoroughgoing changes are required to the organisation and planning of safe work, including rearrangements of physical space. At the same time, novel health-and-safety issues posed by increased telework—such as stress caused by lack of control over time and work-life conflict, as well as musculoskeletal disorders stemming from non-ergonomic facilities at home—need to be addressed.
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The pandemic has also brought to the fore a profound OHS divide in telework. On the one hand are the three-quarters of employees at the highest end of the pay hierarchy able to continue to work remotely; on the other are the expanding number of crowd workers undertaking low-paid, digital piece work, scarcely covered by labour-market regulations or social safety-nets.
The public-health crisis and its complex consequences have increased pressure on the EU to think about its future. There is no better time to revive the momentum for effective, EU-wide steering on OHS. The launch in May 2016 of the revision of the directive on carcinogens and mutagens at work and the proposed amendments which followed (plus some still under debate) are encouraging steps.
But can the Covid-19 crisis provide the opportunity for a decisive turn to a holistic strategy? A confluence of three factors—recognition of the problem by relevant actors and institutions, their willingness and ability to respond, and the availability of relevant policy ideas and options—would be key.
Such a strategy would set outcome goals for the above-mentioned range of physical and psychosocial occupational diseases, based on established evidence, alongside arrangements for the working environment facilitating healthy choices and wellbeing, at and outside work. Age-related factors and gender-specific risks should also be given prominence.
The call by the European Trade Union Confederation for the EU approach to be ‘a strategy and not a strategic framework’ reflects a recognition of the need to scale up core aspects of OHS—in the form of general, comprehensive and (more or less) binding standards for the member states, with effective surveillance mechanisms. Political will at the national and supranational levels is an important prerequisite for EU-driven progress, as is revitalised social dialogue between European employers and trade union organisations (across industry and within sectors).
Whether this can be achieved is an open question. But at least ideas on how to use the European Pillar of Social Rights as a normative guide for an EU-wide ‘social floor’ or ‘holding environment’—general social standards supporting and strengthening welfare-policy problem-solving at the national and subnational levels—are gaining traction in the debate.
Effective monitoring of health-and-safety compliance is crucial. Several means could be used to this end, such as increased resources for national labour inspectorates, as well as the creation of a ‘European certificate’, issued perhaps by the newly established European Labour Authority, in collaboration with national labour inspectorates. Indicators on OHS could be systematically included in the Social Scoreboard and these could be given greater prominence in the European Semester.
Financial support and incentives for firms hard-hit by the pandemic could be made dependent on better understanding and management of work risks and effective worker participation in health and safety. Public-health funding tools available under the EU Health Programme could also be deployed to help the corporate world confront new and emerging risks. Finally, EU research priorities should embrace better-quality, comparable and easily accessible data on work-related diseases, and on enterprises’ regulatory compliance and health-promoting action, beyond the traditional scope of OHS.
This article is derived from a European Social Observatory opinion paper by the authors