Conference highlights differences in national implementation of health and safety Directives

Participants at a December 1997 conference on the working environment in the European Union, organised by the Trade Union Technical Bureau, discussed the differences in implementation at Member State level of the framework health and safety Directive and the individual Directives adopted under it. The importance of the Directives adopted under Article 118A as a cornerstone of the European social dimension was highlighted, but it was argued that this was being undermined by incomplete transposition and significant variations in their implementation at national level.


Measures to improve the working environment and the health and safety of the workforce have been the cornerstone of the European social dimension since the inception of the European Communities. Articles 117 and 118 of the Treaty of Rome called for the Community to be instrumental in achieving the improvement of living and working conditions in the Member States. These provisions were strengthened under Article 118A of the Single European Act (which came into force in 1987), and a Directive on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at the workplace (89/391/EEC) was subsequently adopted by the Labour and Social Affairs Council in June 1989. This framework Directive, intended as a spearhead for other individual Directives, lays down fundamental requirements for health and safety at work, including the obligations of employers and workers, the establishment and maintenance of prevention, protection and emergency services at the workplace, comprehensive information and training and consultation of workers in all matters relating to health and safety. The adoption of the framework Directive led to a spate of Community legislation on health and safety related issues between 1989 and 1992. The individual Directives fall into three main categories. They aim to:

  1. widen the focus from employment injuries and compensation (Directives on health risks arising from work with visual display units, or VDU s, and on the manual handling of loads); or
  2. address risks of such severity that more systematic intervention is necessary (Directives relating to carcinogens, biological agents and mobile and temporary construction sites); or
  3. cover a vast range of work situations affecting numerous working men and women (Directives on work equipment, requirements for the workplace and chemical agents).

A larger number of binding European-level instruments have been adopted in this field than in any other area of the European social dimension. This has been attributed to the fact that "occupational health is an area in which even free marketeers have accepted the need for legislation" (Laurent Vogel of the TUTB, speaking at the December 1997 conference - see below).

The national transposition and implementation of these health and safety Directives was the subject of a conference organised by the Trade Union Technical Bureau (TUTB) - the European Trade Union Confederation's health and safety research and expertise agency - in Brussels on 1-2 December 1997, which was attended by around 200 policymakers and practitioners in the field of occupational health and safety.

The limitations of EU health and safety legislation

Speaking at the TUTB conference, Laurent Vogel argued that the potential gains from the Directives adopted had been partly undermined by their own limitations. In his view, these limitations could be attributed to the fact that legislative texts often contain vague and ambivalent wordings, chosen to achieve a political compromise rather than a clear and consistent framework of regulations. He also criticised the fact that the Directives leave too much room for interpretation at the national level, without clearly defining minimum standards and objectives.

It was also argued that some Directives are not in line with the general approach of the framework Directive. Laurent Vogel quoted the example of the Directive concerning the manual handling of loads which, he argued, does little to address immense problem of musculo-skeletal disorders resulting from increased throughput and the faster pace of work. Similarly, the Directive on work with display screens equipment (more commonly known as the VDU Directive) is seen to be more concerned with problems arising due to eyestrain, rather than with the ergonomics of workstations, job content or software design.

Finally, the Directives were criticised for reflecting a narrow view of how preventive systems work and for failing to address the links between occupational health and the gender perspective in the workplace.

The implementation and transposition of Directives at Member State level

The TUTB conference highlighted the importance of distinguishing between the transposition of Directives into national law and their implementation at the workplace. The nature of legislation and organisational structures to ensure occupational health and safety varies widely from Member State to Member State as a result of differences in national cultural, political and socio-economic heritage. Combined with the influence of political motivations and pressures, this has led to differences in the transposition and impact of health and safety Directives. Divergences are particularly prominent in the nature and role of preventative systems and the involvement of worker representatives. France, for example, initially failed to transpose Article 7 of the framework Directive on preventative systems, while the UK's legislation provided a very limited interpretation of worker involvement.

At the TUTB conference, it was argued that in some countries, the Directives have in fact had very little material effect because of their restrictive transposition, designed solely to meet their minimum requirements (Germany, UK and France). In the Scandinavian countries, their impact was also seen to have been limited because their national legislation already largely meets the requirements of the Directives. However, in a number of Member States the Directives where seen to have brought about more radical changes (Austria, Spain and Italy).

The conference highlighted that the "trimmed down" transposition of Directives and the differences in implementation at Member State and workplace level was proving increasingly problematic because of the perceived decline in working conditions, resulting from the increase in "atypical" working. The polarisation between workers at the core and the periphery of the workforce is increasingly evident, not only in terms of their pay and working conditions, but also in terms of their access to satisfactory occupational health and safety. Legislative protection was also seen to be increasingly significant in times when high levels of unemployment meant for many individuals that a job was more important than their health.

The enforcement of legislation at the workplace

Discussion in one of the workshops held during the conference focused on the implementation of the Directives at the workplace level and the involvement of workplace representatives in relation to occupational health and safety issues.

It was emphasised that the organisation, implementation and policing of workplace health and safety is very different in each Member State, partly because of the different permutations of the interactions between the policing, insurance and preventive functions. Underresourcing of the health and safety inspectorate was also highlighted as a significant problem in many Member States. This is particularly important because of the emphasis on job creation in small and medium-sized enterprises (SME s), where implementation is most difficult to monitor.

Statistics presented at the conference showed that the ratio between numbers of inspectors and employees varied widely between Member States:

No. of employees per health and safety inspector
Belgium 14,000
Denmark 9,000
Finland 5,000
France 10,700
Ireland 20,071
The Netherlands 16,667
Portugal 11,000
Sweden 10,500

The framework Directive provides for the following minimum legal rights for employee representation:

  • selection of health and safety representatives by employees;
  • protection of health and safety representatives from victimisation;
  • paid time off to carry out functions;
  • right to inspect the workplace;
  • right to receive adequate information from the employer on current and future threats;
  • right to investigate complaints;
  • right to make representations to the employer on health and safety;
  • right to be consulted on arrangements;
  • right to be consulted about the use of specialists; and
  • right to accompany health and safety authority inspectors when they inspect workplace

The limited implementation of these provisions in some Member States was considered to be problematic by many participants at the conference, particularly as recent research indicates that high-quality trade union training and representation is particularly instrumental in reducing the number of accidents at work.

Other workshops focused on the transposition of the Directives on the manual handling of loads (90/269/EEC), the VDU Directive (90/270/EEC), the Directive on carcinogens (90/394/EEC), and the prevention of musculo-skeletal disorders. In all cases, it was found that the speed of transposition, the interpretation and the implementation of the Directives varied from Member State to Member State.

Future European legislation on the working environment

A number of speakers and participants at the conference warned that the gains made as a result of legislation passed between 1989 and 1992 were currently under threat. It was argued that since the Maastricht Treaty, the mounting pressure from employers and many Member States for deregulation has had serious consequences:

  • legislative activity is this area has all but halted;
  • most of the Directives adopted since 1992 are perceived to have done little to "further harmonisation while maintaining the improvements made" (in the words of Article 118A), as they are often inferior to existing national legislation (eg, the Directives on certain aspects of working time, the protection of young people at work, and the protection of pregnant workers);
  • a number of initiatives were never taken forward by the Commission in terms of legislative proposals (eg the mooted Directive on the protection of workers in agriculture);
  • no proposals have been put forward to revise existing Directives which require updating (eg the 1986 noise Directive); and
  • the new European Commission action programme on health and safety centres on non-legislative measures, none of which are seen to be very innovative, as well as falling short of joint proposals put forward by employers and trade unions in 1992.

It was argued that the new policy philosophy underlying the European social dimension, with its stress on competitiveness, deregulation and cost-benefit analysis, makes further improvements less likely. There are perceived to be increasing pressures to make worker health and safety secondary to business profits.


Of the 120 million workers in the European Community, almost 10 million are the victims of workplace accidents or occupational diseases each year, while 8,000 workers die each year as a result of occupational accidents. In a recent speech, Padraig Flynn, the commissioner responsible for social affairs, quoted figures which estimate the direct costs of such accidents, in terms of compensation, to be over ECU 25 billion in 1991. The human costs, in terms of loss and suffering, are incalculable.

Although health and safety legislation can be seen as one of the most uncontentious areas of the European social dimension, differences of opinion continue to prevail between social partner organisations and national governments on the exact nature such legislation should take. The improvement of the working environment has been a priority of the trade union movement since the dawn of the industrial revolution, and in the Member States, as well as now at EU level, measures to protect workers from health and safety hazards were among the first steps towards the achievement of a "social market economy". Despite their recognition of the importance of such protective legislation, employer organisations are often wary of the adoption of very high standards, because of the costs these are seen to impose on businesses, and SMEs in particular.

The conference, and the work done by the TUTB shows the need for closer monitoring of the implementation of European Directives in this area and improvement of the exchange of experiences and good practice. The European Agency for Health and Safety at Work in Bilbao, officially inaugurated on 15 September 1997, aims to contribute to the achievement of these aims. (Tina Weber, ECOTEC Research and Consulting Ltd)

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