Recent trends in health and safety at work

Over the past decade or so, changes in the institutional and legislative framework - and particularly Law 1568/1985 and Presidential Decree 17/1996 - have opened up new dimensions for the protection of health and safety at work, and the ability of employers and employees to participate and intervene in this field.

Health and safety at work has arisen as a very serious matter of social concern over recent years and has become a focus of interest for both the state and the social institutions concerned. The magnitude and complexity of the problem and the need to find direct and effective solutions have induced both employers and employees to examine the problem of occupational hazards and conditions affecting the working environment in general. It is estimated that in Greece the national economy is burdened by GRD 20 billion a year due to accidents at work (excluding costs of medical care). The Social Insurance Foundation (IKA) alone receives 25,000 reports of accidents at work a year. The problem is even bigger if we add in the cost of occupational illnesses which remain undiagnosed, since these are ignored by the official statistics.

Although working conditions have generally improved in relation to the past, the impression remains that progress in improving health and safety at work is slow compared with that in other European countries. In the light of this, both the Greek General Confederation of Labour (GSEE) and the Federation of Greek Industries (SEV) - the two principal representatives of employees and employers respectively - recognise the need for constructive collaboration in this field and place matters of health and safety amongst their priorities for action.

The EGSSE (1991/2) and the establishment of ELINYAE

The need for collaboration between the social partners was stressed in the National General Collective Agreement (EGSSE) for 1991/2 , the first serious attempt to regulate health and safety matters through collective bargaining at national level.

Under Article 6 of the EGSSE 1991/2, GSEE and the employers' organisations (SEV, GSVEE and EESE) agreed to create the Hellenic Institute for Occupational Health and Safety (ELINYAE), stating that it would be managed by an equal number of representatives from both sides of industry. The cost of establishing and operating the Institute would be primarily covered by a levy to be included in the existing employers' contributions (0.45%) to vocational training as provided for by Article 4 of the EGSSE for 1991/2 and by Article 6 of the EGSSE for 1988. The agreement was finally carried out with the establishment of a non-profit making corporation, in line with the Greek Civil Code, in June 1992.

The operation of ELINYAE began in May 1993. Its main objective is the improvement of Greek legislation on health and safety at work, its harmonisation within the EU framework health and safety Directive 89/391/EEC of 12 June 1989, and its effective implementation. The framework Directive covered the application of special measures to promote the improvement of health and safety at work.

The legislative framework and its implications

ELINYAE is a product of cooperation between the main employer and employee organisations and has as a long-term objective their contribution to the development of an overarching policy of health, hygiene and safety at work in Greece. In addition to this new body, there is the institutional framework itself, which has been modified to reflect certain demands of the social institutions concerned.

More specifically, a real breakthrough in the field of prevention of occupational hazards in Greece has been the enactment of Framework Law 1568/1985 on Health and Safety at Work. This law is a milestone in the history of Greek health and safety legislation, as it introduced an important number of new institutions. At enterprise level the most important are those of the works doctor (Giatros Ergasias, GE), the safety officer (Technikos Asfaleias, TA) and the workplace health and safety committee (Epitropi Ygieinis & Asfaleias Ergazomenon, EYAE).

According to Articles 2 and 3 of Law 1568/1985, the EYAE is provided for in enterprises in both the private and public sectors with, in principle, more than 50 employees. In enterprises with between 20 and 50 employees, a health and safety representative performs the functions of the EYAE. At national level the law also provides for the creation of a Health and Safety Council (SYAE), an advisory and consultative body with broad representation including three representatives from GSEE and three representatives from the employers' organisations (industry, small businesses and commerce). Apart from setting up these new agencies, Law 1568/1985 also for the first time laid down maximum allowable levels for employees' exposure to chemical substances or natural agents.

These agencies not only set up a better framework for the prevention of occupational hazards by improving health and safety regulations at work and securing their more effective implementation, but they also promote the participation of both sides of industry in the whole process.

This trend is being reinforced through the ratification of the 1989 EU framework Directive through Presidential Decree 17/1996, which opens new dimensions for the protection of health and safety at work. It is important to stress the important role of the SYAE in promoting the harmonisation of Greek legislation in line with the framework Directive and other EU Directives.

During the period 1994-6, in the course of some 40 consultative sessions, EYAE drew up almost unanimously 15 legislative proposals which have been enacted through presidential decrees. Of great importance is Article 3 of Presidential Decree 17/1996 which provides for the right of employees to select a delegate in enterprises with fewer than 20 employees. This delegate performs the functions of the EYAE. In this way, this regulation introduces collective employment relations into the smallest enterprises which constitute the vast majority of enterprises in industry and services (99.5% of those in the private sector). Of great importance too is Article 10 of the same Decree, which broadens the representation, participation and consultation rights of the EYAE and those of the health and safety representatives. For example, they acquire the right to appeal to the External Service for Protection and Prevention (EXYPP) and to take part in the organisation of training.

The above discussion about the legislative framework is only a small indication of the important changes in the field of health and safety at work that have taken place over recent years, and it focuses mainly on those regulations which in one way or another have influenced the procedures for participation of both employers and employees.

Other dimensions of the problem

However, apart from these legislative innovations, there still exists a serious problem of harmonisation with EU law. Even more serious is the problem of the application of the law, particularly insofar as it concerns small and medium-sized enterprises. However, with Presidential Decree 17/1996, the abovementioned agencies have been broadened in scope to cover enterprises which employ 80% of the labour force, whereas until then they had applied only to those which employed 20%.

Nevertheless, the role of the institutional framework following the positive changes since 1995 should not at any cost be underestimated. Recent evidence (ELINYAE, 1996) reveals, for example, a substantial reduction in accidents at work, attributed to the changes in the legislative framework.

The main problem in Greece remains, however, the lack of institutional infrastructure to support the legal framework and promote its application. The principal lack is concentrated in the fields of education and training, information and the provision of technical services. To these causes can be added the lack of systematic recording of accidents at work and occupational illnesses. Both GSEE and SEV have worked out proposals to remedy all these problems which they try to advance either through ELINYAE or SYAE - as in the case of health and safety in vocational training.

Of great significance also is the latest publication of ELINYAE, Statistics on accidents at work in Greece, which constitutes the first serious attempt to record in a systematic way the totality of accidents at work in Greece. This report stresses once again the need for constructive cooperation between employers and employees so as to promote positive and effective intervention in the field of health and safety at work.

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