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Health and safety

23 December 2015
28 June 2018

Health and safety is given a wide definition in the European Union context, going beyond the avoidance of accidents and prevention of disease to include all aspects of a worker’s well-being. The International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) share the same definition of health and

European Industrial Relations Dictionary

Health and safety is given a wide definition in the European Union context, going beyond the avoidance of accidents and prevention of disease to include all aspects of a worker’s well-being. The International Labour Organization (ILO) and the World Health Organization (WHO) share the same definition of health and safety at work.

According to this definition, health and safety regulations are aimed at the promotion and maintenance of:

  • the highest degree of physical, mental and social well-being of workers in all occupations;
  • the prevention among workers of leaving work due to health problems caused by their working conditions;
  • the protection of workers in their employment from risks resulting from factors adverse to health;
  • the placing and maintenance of the worker in an occupational environment adapted to his or her physiological and psychological capabilities.

In short, health and safety promotes 'the adaptation of work to the person and of each person to their job'.

EU competence and legislation

The competence of the EU to intervene in the field of health and safety at work is defined by the provision in Article 153 (1 and 2) TFEU, which authorises the Council to adopt, by means of directives, minimum requirements as regards ‘improvement in particular of the working environment to protect workers’ health and safety’ (a provision originating in the Single European Act 1986). The significance of this broad scope of health and safety is immense, as it underpins the potential of EU health and safety policy to prescribe minimum standards to protect all aspects of a worker’s well-being.

The adoption of the Single European Act in 1986 gave new impetus to the occupational health and safety measures taken by the Community. It represented the first time that health and safety at work had been dealt with in an operational provision in the EEC Treaty, under the new Article 118A EEC (now Article 153 (2) TFEU). This article allowed the Council of Ministers to adopt directives intended to protect workers’ health and safety at work by qualified majority, thus speeding up the adoption process at the Council.

Article 100A EEC (now Article 114 TFEU) – the objective of which was to remove all barriers to trade in the single market and to allow the free movement of goods across borders – is also relevant for health and safety at work. Directives under Article 100A EEC are intended to ensure the placing on the market of safe products, including machinery and personal protective equipment.

The area of health and safety at work has been one of intense activity on the part of the EU and it is estimated that approximately two-thirds of all social policy directives are in this field. The pattern of activity has been characterised by unevenness, however, with periods of more or less activity and changes in EU strategy in this area. The period following the adoption of the Single European Act was particularly fruitful, producing – most importantly – the general Framework Directive on health and safety (Council Directive 89/391/EEC) of 12 June 1989 on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work. This was soon followed by a further six ‘daughter’ directives, which came into effect by 1 January 1993. Since then, Union law has produced a number of further directives covering conditions in the workplace and requirements regarding work equipment and exposure to dangerous substances (chemical, physical and biological agents).

The principal and general measure concerned with health and safety at the workplace is Council Directive 89/654/EEC on the minimum health and safety requirements for the workplace. It is the first individual directive within the meaning of Article 16 (1) of Directive 89/391/EEC. Beyond this, there are further directives concerned with specific workplaces or industries.

However, changing social priorities in the 1990s, reflected in an emphasis on competitiveness and employment, changed the context of the EU’s agenda on health and safety, leading to less legislative output and a turn towards more 'soft law' measures. In recent years, the emphasis has been on innovative approaches, such as partnerships and benchmarking.

Enforcement and compliance

Although EU law on health and safety applies equally to all Member States and is guaranteed supremacy over national law, the implementation and enforcement of that law inevitably reflects the different national traditions of enforcement, with consequences for the consistency of its application across the EU. Since the beginning of the 1990s, EU documents setting out the features of EU occupational health and safety policy have argued that poor implementation and enforcement of EU law on health and safety have become a core concern of policy in this field. The argument has been used to prioritise some attempts (not always successful) to implement the existing acquis communautaire in the field rather than the adoption of new regulations.

In this context, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) was established in 1994, and the Commission has made increasing use of its control powers to ensure better implementation among Member States. The Senior Labour Inspectors’ Committee (SLIC) was established in 1995 to ‘give its opinion to the Commission, either at the Commission’s request or on its own initiative, on all problems relating to the enforcement by the Member States of Community law on health and safety at work’.

However, there are important limits on the initiatives of the Commission and the Agency to ensure better implementation, and ultimately it is the responsibility of the Member States, each with its own administrative and industrial relations mechanisms, to ensure the enforcement of EU law on health and safety. In incidences of failure by Member States to comply with the EU law on health and safety, the Commission can complain of such violations to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) under Article 258 TFEU.

EU OSH strategies

The EU has put into place a series of strategic frameworks on health and safety in order to better protect workers from work-related accidents and diseases. The latest is the EU Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Strategic Framework 2014–2020, which identifies key challenges and strategic objectives for health and safety at work, presents key actions and identifies instruments to address these. The three current major OSH challenges are:

  • to improve the implementation of existing health and safety rules, in particular by enhancing the capacity of micro and small enterprises to put in place effective and efficient risk-prevention strategies;
  • to improve the prevention of work-related diseases by tackling new and emerging risks without neglecting existing risks;
  • to take account of the ageing of the EU's workforce.

According to the EU OSH Framework, the seven strategies objectives for dealing with these challenges are:

  • to further consolidate national OSH strategies through policy coordination and mutual learning;
  • to provide practical support to small and micro enterprises;
  • to improve enforcement by the Member States;
  • to simplify legislation and eliminate unnecessary administrative burdens;
  • to address the ageing workforce, improve prevention of work-related diseases and tackle existing and new OSH risks;
  • to improve statistical data collection;
  • to reinforce coordination with international organisations in order to help reduce work-related accidents and diseases and improve working conditions.

In order to achieve these objectives, the Framework states that EU funds, such as the European Social Fund (ESF) and the Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI) programme, will be available.

See also: complaints to the European Court of Justice; enforcement of EU law; health and safety personnel; health and safety representativesinfringements of EU law; noise; occupational accidents and diseases; protective equipment; risk assessment; working environment.


Eurofound (2018), Health and safety, European Industrial Relations Dictionary, Dublin