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. The determinants and possible consequences of these changes are explored.
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.