Improvements needed in the working environment

Safety in the workplace in Estonia still needs to be improved, four years after this was recommended by the National Audit Office of Estonia (NAO). A study by the NAO in 2007 showed the government had not acted consistently in ensuring safety at work. It said statistics for occupational accidents and illnesses were inaccurate, and suggested employers should bear more of the cost of these accidents and illnesses. It also suggested analysing other countries’ safety methods.

Findings of the first study

An audit by the National Audit Office of Estonia (NAO) in 2007 showed that there were several problems in the Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) system that needed to be improved. The NAO concluded that the state had not acted consistently in ensuring a safe working environment. It also stated that, since employers are responsible for their work environment, the costs of occupational accidents and illnesses should be paid for partly by them, and not just by the state. It was also revealed that the statistics for occupational accident and illnesses did not accurately reflect the actual situation. The NAO suggested that other countries’ ways of making the working environment a safer place should be analysed, with a view to adapting them for use in Estonia. The NAO said a safe working environment should be one of the highest priorities of the state, especially as the working-age population was decreasing.

The follow-up audit

The follow-up audit by the NAO (330Kb PDF) in March 2011 assessed the implementation of the NAO’s 2007 recommendations and what had been done to improve the working environment in Estonia.

The analysis is based on interviews with 17 high-ranking officials closely involved with the system. The NAO also analysed how the efficient systems of three other countries could be adapted for Estonia. Eurostat data were used to compare the situation in Estonia with that of other European countries. OSH regulations were also analysed in order to evaluate the current OSH system in Estonia.

Main conclusions of the follow-up audit

The audit concluded that the problems highlighted in 2007 have not been resolved.

According to a 2009 survey by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (OSHA), 84% of employees named their workplace as the main reason for causing health problems in Estonia. However, the Labour Inspectorate (Tööinspektsioon) stated that the working environment has improved in recent years. It said that, in 2009, 82% of companies it inspected were positively evaluated. Even so, the number of violations of OSH regulations increased by 21% in 2009 compared to the previous year. Thus, it would appear that employees in Estonia are highly vulnerable in their working environments.

Another recurrent problem is that, as pointed out by the NAO in 2007, the statistics for the number of occupational accidents and illnesses do not reflect the actual situation. Many incidents are not reported for various reasons. Firstly, it is the employers’ responsibility, under Estonian law, to report occupational accidents. Yet, occupational accidents are registered only in one institution in Estonia, thus the service is not easily attainable. Hence, employers are not motivated to report occupational accidents.

Also, benefits paid to workers for occupational accidents and illnesses are financed by the state. Employees have the right to be compensated by employers, but they have to prove that their employer is to blame. Also, it is not stipulated exactly how any compensation should be calculated. In order to get compensation from the employer, an employee has to go to court, which is rare, as the process is time-consuming and expensive. The NAO therefore concluded that employers have no incentive to improve the safety of their employees’ working environment.

In its latest report, the NAO reiterated its 2007 finding, that the state has not acknowledged the importance of safe working environment. There is still no national strategy to address the working environment. There have been various development plans approved by the government that cover this topic, but many are conflicting and are not followed through.

A system of insurance against occupational accidents and illness has still not been implemented although it has been on the government’s agenda since 2006. Also, the state has not conducted any thorough impact analysis of other countries’ experience. The NAO found measures implemented by Finland, Germany and the Netherlands could be adapted for use in Estonia. In the Netherlands, for example, the employer is obliged to pay sickness benefit for up to two years if the employee gets an occupational illness or has an accident in the workplace. If the employee is not better six weeks after the accident or start of the illness, the employer has to work out a personal rehabilitation plan with the employee. If, after two years, the employee is still not well, the employer no longer has to pay the sickness benefit. This system motivates both employers and employees to ensure the safety of the working environment and has been successful in the Netherlands.

Recommendations

The NAO recommended that employers’ responsibilities should be greater and their obligations regarding OSH should be set out in more detail. The NAO also suggested that a comprehensive analysis of different OSH systems that could be potentially implemented in Estonia should be conducted.

Liina Osila and Kirsti Nurmela, PRAXIS Centre for Policy Studies

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