Belgium: Preventing psychosocial risks at work

New laws in Belgium to combat psychosocial risks in the workplace became effective on 1 September 2014. These laws update previous legislation enacted in 1996 and 2007, introducing a wider definition of ‘psychosocial risks’ that includes violence and harassment at work. It also deals with the development of new ways of ameliorating these risks.

Updated legislation to combat psychosocial risks at work

In Belgium, two new federal laws and a Royal Decree have been introduced to update the regulation of how workplaces combat psychosocial risks to employees. The law of 28 February 2014 supplements the Law of 4 August 1996 on the welfare of employees at work, addressing in particular issues of violence, harassment and sexual harassment at work. The Law of 28 March 2014 amends the Judicial Code, and the Royal Decree of 10 April 2014 covers the prevention of psychosocial risks at work. The new legislation came into force on 1 September 2014.

Wider definition of psychosocial risks

These new laws reinforce and enlarge on previous definitions of ‘psychosocial risks’ in the workplace.

The concept of a ‘psychosocial risk at work’ is defined as the probability of one or more worker being at risk of or exposed to some aspect of environment or behaviour that creates an objective danger over which the employer has some control. These include: psychological hazards and/or physical injuries; an element of work organisation (management style, collaboration, procedures, structure, allocation of tasks); an element of work content (nature of work, complexity, hardness and variation of tasks, emotional and mental charge); working and living conditions at the workplace (evaluation procedures, career management, types of contracts, training plans, workplace facilities, environmental factors, substances used, ergonomic factors), or interpersonal relationships at work (communication, colleagues, intergroup relationships).

Of course this definition still covers sexual harassment, violence at the workplace and psychological harassment.

The new definition leads to better identification and reinforcement of stakeholders’ roles in the prevention of risks at work. These stakeholders include the employer, line managers, the workplace prevention and protection committee, technical experts in psychosocial prevention, and the ‘trustworthy person’ (personne de confiance). The status of the ‘trustworthy person’ in particular has been developed through the new laws. For instance, the presence of such a person in the company is not compulsory but it is strongly recommended by public authorities. It could be a worker in the firm (such as the internal prevention adviser) or someone from the external service for prevention and protection at work (part of the Belgian Federal Public Service Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue).

New prevention procedures

The ‘trustworthy person’ has to complete a five-day training course and an annual evaluation to check the quality of their work. Their role involves meeting and accompanying workers who are victims of psychological or sexual harassment or violence. If the ‘trustworthy person’ has a conflict of interest with the victim or if there are any doubts about their role, workers’ representatives now have the right to ask that the person be sidelined.

The new laws aim to reinforce the prevention of psychosocial risks at work. To this end, several provisions have been outlined at both collective and individual levels.

At collective level, a line manager or at least a third of the workers’ representatives within the prevention committee can request a risk analysis. In this case, employers have to proceed to a preliminary risk analysis, with the participation of workers and the prevention adviser. This analysis leads to the definition of new measures that have to be planned and communicated. Then, once a year, the stakeholders in risk prevention at work evaluate the risk analysis as well as the measures taken to combat the risks.

At the individual level, the following actions have been developed or reinforced to facilitate the investigation of complaints about psychosocial injuries.

Usual social relations: Belgian laws consider that the first person who is supposed to resolve psychosocial issues at the workplace is the employer or the line manager. Members of the prevention committee and workers’ representatives are also considered appropriate officials to help resolve such matters.

Internal procedure: if the 'usual social relations' are unsuccessful, a formal or informal intervention could occur. The ‘trustworthy person’ leads these procedures in one of two ways:

  • informal psychosocial intervention – this takes the form of several interviews, active listening and the provision of advice, and is particularly appropriate in situations where a problem involving relationships between work colleagues can be resolved by means of a conciliation process;
  • formal psychosocial intervention – this starts with a request to the prevention adviser to proceed to a risk analysis; this is sent to the employer who has to take appropriate measures to reduce or repair the psychosocial injuries, but also reprimand the person responsible.

Inspection by ‘Control of Wellness at Work’ (CWW): Workers always have the option to request an inspection by the CWW (Contrôle du Bien-être au Travail/Toezicht op het Welzijn op het Werk) which is responsible for ensuring, in both the private and public sectors, that workplace health and safety policies are respected.

Labour Auditor: if the CWW’s intervention fails, the Labour Auditor is informed. The Labour Auditor is in charge of public prosecutions for Labour Court matters.

Mediation: mediation is an alternative to the legal process which involves a decision imposed by an authorised mediator to parties in conflict.

Court intervention: as a last resort, workers have the option of initiating legal proceedings at the penal or the civil court. If the court confirms the psychosocial injury, several sanctions can be imposed such as the payment of financial or non-financial indemnification, the issuing of an injunction or other measures imposed on the employer to resolve the psychosocial impact.

Protection against reprisals

The new laws also put measures in place to protect victims against reprisals so that they are not discouraged from reporting psychosocial injuries. For example, if the employer takes any action prejudicial to the worker concerned, whether in or outside working hours, the employer has to prove to the court that its decision is clearly not related to the worker’s complaint.

Commentary

These new laws provide a better and broader definition of psychosocial risks. This enables the development and enforcement of mechanisms which aim to protect victims of psychosocial injuries, and also to help them ask for assistance. Through the new legislation, the public authorities hope to increase the quality of working conditions in more sustainable organisations.

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