Austria: EWCO comparative analytical report on Information, consultation and participation of workers concerning health and safety”

  • Observatory: EurWORK
  • Topic:
  • Participation at work,
  • Industrial relations,
  • Published on: 21 Deireadh Fómhair 2010


Disclaimer: This information is made available as a service to the public but has not been edited or approved by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The content is the responsibility of the authors.

The main challenge in Austria in the field of health and safety is to get all companies to fulfil the legal regulations. There is a special attention to the situation in SME’s even laid down in the Employee Protection Act. But the general situation in Austria is characterised by a fundamental lack of data on the H&S practices regarding information, consultation and participation in Austrian companies which makes it difficult to evaluate the actual state of affairs.

Background information

The general issue

According to several studies (Walters, 2002, HSE, 2005), Health and Safety management shows significant differences between large companies and SMEs. In these latter, especially among micro-enterprises (less than 10 employees) and small ones (10-49 employees), H&S regulation is a lot of times perceived more as a burden to comply rather than a competitive opportunity because of stronger pressure over costs, company struggle for survival, lack of both financial and human resources. Further, in micro and small firms employers do not always own adequate OSH managerial skills and knowledge and they often see with suspicious the support offered by public agencies.

The extent of workers’ involvement is ambiguous: on the one hand could be easier because of direct relationship with ownership, while lower skills and shorter average tenure and the lack of OSH workplace representatives, due to legal threshold and/or non-unionization, make workers less involved in taking care of H&S on the other.

Regulatory Framework

The Health and Safety at work Framework Council Directive 89/391 introduces general prevention principles applicable to all occupational risks, aimed to ensure a higher degree of protection of workers at work through the implementation of preventive measures to guard against accidents at work and occupational diseases. The directive establishes the obligation on employers to adequately inform (art. 10) and to consult his/her employees and their representatives (art.11) by allowing them “to take part in discussions on all questions relating to safety and health at work”, thus including their right to make proposals and to a balanced participation. Finally, the directive sets an obligation on the employer to adequately train at his expenses his/her employees (art. 12) and their representatives, with regular repeals in order to take into account of technological and organizational changes and to the insurgence or changes of new risks.

The H&S at work strategy 2007-2013 stresses the importance of SMEs, high-risk sectors and subcontracting in achieving the target of a 25% cut of work accidents within 2013: in particular, SMEs are seen as more vulnerable since they have “fewer resources to put complex systems of protection in place, while some of them tend to be more affected by the negative impact of health and safety problems”.

The strategy envisages a simplification and adaptation of the existing legislation to SMEs and various forms of support in its implementation, such as dissemination of good practices, training of employees, development of simple risk assessment tools and guidelines, access to affordable and good quality prevention services, and economic incentives. Labour inspectors should play a twofold role both “as intermediaries to promote better compliance with the legislation in SMEs, primarily through education, persuasion and encouragement” and “when necessary, through coercive means”,

Member States are invited to “take steps to facilitate access to good quality prevention services” particularly in favour of SMEs, to improve health surveillance of workers while avoiding inflating the formal requirements, to incorporate into their national strategies specific measures (financial assistance, training tailored to individual needs, etc.). Further, Member States and the social partners are encouraged to promote “the practical, rapid implementation of the results of basic research by making simple preventive instruments available to enterprises and in particular to SMEs”.

The second programme of Community action in the field of health (2008–2013) and the 2008 "European Pact for Mental Health and Well-being" , together with framework agreements on work-related stress (2004) and violence, bullying and harassment at workplace (2007) show both an important shift from the original notion of H&S, as stated by the 1989 directive, towards a more general “well-being” approach, and the prominent role played by social dialogue in its advance.

Figures and trends

Eurostat figures over work accidents (2002-2006) show the highest incidence rates in medium companies (50-249 employees), while micro-entreprises (1-9 employees) show the highest rates over fatal accidents. These trends seem to depend on the impact of manufacturing, construction and transports, while in the other services industries trends are not so clear-cut. However, Eurostat figures by industry and company size are not complete in order to provide an adequate assessment over time. Further, new risks emerge and work-related diseases (WRDs) evolve from the so-called “hygienic” risk factors towards “psychosocial” ones reflecting changes in working conditions.

Similarly Eurofound 4th EWCS does not show a clear-cut relationship between work accidents, risks for health and work-related diseases with company size. When asked “Do you think your health or safety is at risk because of your work?” (question 32) and “Does your work affect your health, or not?” (question 33), respondents working in small companies (10-49 employees) report the lowest scores. However, the share of respondents not well informed on H&S (question 12) declines from 15.3% in companies with 2 to 9 employees to 11.2% in companies over 250 employees: on average, such a share tend to increase since 1995 (see the full descriptive report). Similarly, both training and involvement over organizational issues are positively correlated with company size and could display indirectly a positive effect on H&S. Composition effects with respect to age (small companies show younger population), and industry (wider proportion of SMEs in services) should be taken into account.


1. National settings and regulatory framework

- How is the 1989 Framework directive on H / S and in particular information / consultation practically implemented in SMEs? Any data available? Do administrative reports exist in particular from the Labour Inspectorate?

One of the main instruments to ensure the implementation of the 1989 Framework directive in SMEs is the legally binding establishment of regional prevention centres by the Austrian Social Insurance for Occupational Risks (AUVA) and the obligation to offer free of charge prevention services for small-sized companies with fewer than 50 employees. Ten years ago ten regional prevention centres (at least one for each federal state) were established. In 2007 health and safety inspections in 101,415 work sites with a total of more than 866,504 employees were carried out offering health and safety consultancy for small enterprises. That means that the consultancy services offered by the prevention centres covered almost two thirds (65.7%) of all employees in the enterprises concerned (with fewer than 50 employees).. But there is no information on the aspects of information / consultation within this programme.

- Does its implementation in micro and small companies follow similar patterns than in medium ones?

There is no information available on differences in the practical implementation between micro- and small sized companies and medium-sized enterprises. With respect to the legal regulations there is a difference: In companies employing more than 50 workers an obligatory amount of working time must be set aside for prevention matters (by H&S experts and occupational health physicians), depending on the number of employees and the character of the jobs. In companies with less than 50 employees annual/biannual inspections/consultancies by external H&S experts/occupational physicians are sufficient

- Is H&S the current focus of legislation or did it evolve by incorporating “well-being at work” as the basic concept?

The basic concept of the Employee Protection Act is still health and safety.

- The Community strategy health and safety at work for 2007-2012 calls upon the member states to work out and implement strategies to reduce the number of industrial accidents and occupational diseases; are the SMEs specially singled out in the national strategies and cooperation between social partners underlined / foreseen / called for?

In Austria the Occupational Safety and Health Advisory Board has been commissioned by the Federal Ministry of Labour to conceive the Occupational Safety and Health Strategy 2007-2012.

The formulated strategy consists of five core elements, of which one directly addresses small-sized companies. The laid down aim is the “support of small sized enterprises with the aid of intelligible information and practical guides”.

In the five working groups, several projects specifically target small and medium-sized companies. Working Group 1 developed an information folder on “Principles of Risk Assessment” especially for the usage of SMEs with the aim to improve the transfer of information to SMEs. Moreover, provision is made for the conception of a questionnaire and enquiry about the implementation of risk assessment in SMEs in practice. Working Group 2 (accident prevention) focuses on the special situation and needs of SMEs: three information folders on accident prevention in the construction sector, the wood-processing sector and in the metal and electrical industries are under progress, containing elements of risk assessment for the usage in SMEs.

And in Working Group 5 (raising awareness of occupational safety and health) two projects refer to SMEs: One deals with sectoral solutions and failure management (near accidents and unsafe conditions) for SMEs. The other focuses on the specific issue of “explosion protection in SMEs of certain sectors”. In 2009 the Labour Inspectorate is conducting a focus campaign on this topic.

2. The micro-level settings: the role of H&S representatives

- From what level onwards / number of employees onwards, is it legally binding to establish an H&S Committee in the companies? What’s its role and function?

The legal regulations with respect to health and safety at work are laid down in the Employee Protection Act (ArbeitnehmerInnenschutzgesetz, ASchG). According to this Act it is binding to establish a H&S Committee in a company or site with more than 100 employees or more than 250 employees if at least three quarters of the workplaces only bear desk job (Büroarbeitsplätze) risks. An H&S Committee consists of: the employer/management, health and safety expert, occupational health physician, health and safety officer, works council. It is chaired by the employer/management. H&S Committee meetings must be held at least twice a year and whenever a third of its members demands one.

The main function of the H&S Committee is to work out basic principles for the advancement and further development of health and safety within the company, to support and ensure the cooperation between all relevant health and safety actors within the company as well as the coordination of all H&S activities. Therefore, it chiefly deals with reports and proposals submitted by the different risk prevention representatives: the health and safety expert, the occupational health physician and the health and safety officer.

- From what level onwards / number of employees onwards are risk prevention representatives elected? Are they distinct representatives from H&S Committee and work councils?

In Austria we have to differentiate between H&S experts, occupational health physicians and H&S officers.

In contrast to H&S experts and occupational health physicians, H&S officers are staff representatives in H&S matters. They are appointed by the employer, with the consent # the works council. The works council also has the right to withdraw H&S officers during their four year period. In companies without a works council, the approval by vote of a third of the workforce is necessary, both with respect to the appointment and the withdrawal of an H&S officer. H&S officers have to represent the interests of the employees, to support them and to advise the employer in all H&S matters within the company. They are not subject to directives by the employer. They have the right to demand necessary measures in all health and safety matters and bring in suggestions for the improvement of working conditions. They also must be informed of the outcomes of all the activities of H&S experts and occupational health physicians.

H&S officers have to be appointed in companies with more than ten employees:

  • 11-50 employees: 1 H&S officer

  • 51-100 employees: 2 H&S officers

  • more than 300 employees: 3 H&S officers

- Does the H&S Committee deal with individual health related complaints? Does it have the right to initiate action?

There is no information available on whether or how H&S Committees deal with individual health complaints. The Committee has the right to initiate action because all relevant actors including employers and employee representatives are part of it.

- Do regional/territorial risk prevention representatives exist, covering several small SMEs?

There are no regional/territorial risk prevention representatives in terms of employee representatives. But as mentioned above, prevention centres of the Austrian Social Insurance for Occupational Risks offer free of charge inspections by H&S experts and occupational health physicians to the small-sized companies in the region they cover.

- Is there special H&S training foreseen for OSH representatives/committees? Is it adequate in order to cope with both emerging risks and legislative and technological changes in SMEs?

For the position of the H&S expert an eight week vocational training course is obligatory while H&S officers must complete a 24-hour external H&S training course.

- In order to carry out prevention policies, does a right exist for the H&S Committee to carry out surveys, call in outside independent experts? Who finances the costs of the operations / expertise? Does this right exist also in SMEs?

As mentioned above the design of the H&S Committee includes employers and employee representatives. Therefore it can carry out surveys and call in independent outside experts but based on a common, agreed decision.

- Does the H&S Committee have the right to consult the Labour Inspectorate?

The chair of the H&S Committee (employer/management) can – on his/her own initiative or the recommendation of other members – consult external experts or even the labour inspectorate. But there is no right. As the H&S Committee in Austria is designed as a social partnership institution it is based on compromise building. On the other side it is an institutionalised setting of information, consultation and the participation of employee representatives in health and safety matters. In case that no H&S Committee exists, both health and safety experts and occupational health physicians have the right to call in the Labour inspectorate if they come to the conclusion that the measures taken by the employer to fulfil health and safety regulations are insufficient.

- Does regular reporting, annual reports exist which describe enterprises occupational diseases, assess the occupational risks at the workplace and present prevention policies? Are they submitted to the H&S Committee for discussion before publication?

There are no published company reports on occupational diseases or assessments of occupational risks at the workplace. But both H&S officers and occupational health physicians have to present – purely internal - reports on these issues (occupational risk assessment, occupational diseases) to the H&S Committee.

- Is the H&S Committee, when providing a high standard of working conditions and of occupational health and safety seen as a positive competition factor? Can the image of the companies be regarded as important in the context for winning major contracts? Do companies refer to the activities of the H&S Committee in their Annual report of activities, to the existence of day-to-day bargaining and the management of working conditions by the H&S Committee? Do and how differ the approaches between micro/small, medium and large companies?

It is difficult to answer these questions because there is no empirical evidence. One indicator with regard to H&S as a positive competition factor could be the number of certified companies for the implementation of H&S Management systems. In Austria 300 companies have a certification for the international OHSAS-Management system and about 40 companies for the national H&S Management system. Moreover about 60 companies have been awarded the “Seal of quality in workplace health promotion”. But in general you hardly can say that occupational health and safety is seen as a positive factor in competition, with perhaps the exception of some small segments of the market. In general, the diagnosis is that the main challenge is to get all companies to fulfil the legal regulations.

3. Social partners and the role of collective bargaining

Please summarize specific arrangements on H&S for SMEs and SME-dominated industries, and how territorial OSH representatives could intervene at workplace.

The legislation stipulates the specific treatment of small companies in the fulfilment of legal H&S prevention obligations. Furthermore it obliges the Austrian Social Insurance for Occupational Risks (AUVA) to offer some services (prevention inspections/consultations) to small companies for free, implemented by regional prevention centres.

What is the role of Social partners in drawing guidelines and implementing H&S and work organization intervention aimed to prevent work accidents and WRDs? What is the role of labour inspectorates, social security institutions, OSH services and national agencies in promoting local-level experiences in SMEs? Please summarize, if there exist, the extent of the cooperation between these latter and social partners.

First of all social dialogue is institutionally embedded in the structure of health and safety matters in Austria. According to the Employee Protection Act, the so-called Occupational Safety and Health Advisory Board (Arbeitnehmerschutzbeirat) was founded to advise the Minister for Work, Health and Social Affairs in principle matters and strategies related to health and safety at work. In this body, the social partners such as the Chamber of Labour (Arbeiterkammer, AK), the Austrian Federal Economic Chamber (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKO), the Federation of Austrian Industry (Industriellenvereinigung, IV) and the Austrian Trade Union Federation (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) are members and thus do have an influence on health and safety policies in Austrian working life and on the activities of the Austrian Labour Inspectorate.

The cooperation between labour inspectorates, social security institutions, OSH services and national agencies and the Social partners is very close. Within the Occupational Safety and Health Strategy Expert Committee experts from all relevant H&S institutions as well as from social partners cooperate on the implementation of the Austrian Occupational Safety and Health Strategy 2007-2012.

Both Social partners and Labour Inspectorate try to promote good and best practice examples at company level experience via internet websites. The social partners set up a particular internet portal (i.e. which went online in June 2006. The internet portal records a documentation of good practice examples of Austrian companies which have implemented (or are about to do so) programmes encouraging improvements in terms of occupational health and safety, some of them for SMEs. Also the Labour inspectorate promote on their website good and best practice examples both for branch level (for example good practice sector-solutions for manual handling of loads in transport and care) and for company level including examples from SMEs.

4. Figures, quantitative and qualitative studies.

Are there specific surveys which prove that standards of working conditions, health and safety within small enterprises as compared to larger ones are significant lagging behind?

In general there are very few studies in Austria dealing with the topic of health and safety in companies. Furthermore there are no specific surveys available concerning the difference in standards of working conditions or/and health and safety in Austria.

There is a study of the Labour Inspectorate referring to the situation of health and safety officers in companies with special attention to information/consultation and participation. The study was carried out by labour inspectors within their work. The sample included 612 companies (>50: 38%; 51-250: 46%; <250: 16%). In 89% of the companies the number of appointed H&S officers was in accordance with the law. In 50% H&S officers work in executive positions and in companies with a works council 26% are works council members. Women are underrepresented as H&S officers (12%, compared to 31% of female employees).

With respect to the information/consultation aspects, the study investigated if H&S officers can make use of their information rights, if they have access to all relevant health and safety data/documentation, if they are involved in regular meetings and if they take part in regular health and safety inspections.

With respect to the information rights the study shows the highest percentage in companies with less than 50 employees (90%) compared to medium sized (86%) and big companies (87%). Also with regard to access to health-and-safety-relevant data/documentation there is no big difference according to company size. With respect to involvement in regular meetings and participation in H&S inspections, large companies show a higher level of cooperation (94% in relation to 86/85%) and participation (87% in relation to 81/80%). However the level in both small and medium-sized enterprises seems to be very high.

Moreover the study investigated the participation of H&S officers in the provision of personal protective equipment, in health and safety projects and in measures dealing with work accidents and occupational diseases. The analysis is based on a point system: participation taken place: 2 points, participation partly taken place: 1; no participation: -2 points. A high participation level (4-6 points) can be made out for 62% of the companies show, while 21% show sufficient participation (3-2 points) and 16% of companies insufficient participation (below 2 points). An analysis with respect to company size (by mean and median) shows that this factor does matter: Small companies (<50 employees) show a mean of 3.6 (var.: 5.7) and a median of 4, medium sized enterprises (51-250) a mean of 3.8 (var.: 6.3) and a median of 4 and big companies (>250) a mean of 4.3 (var.: 3.3) and median of 5 points. According to the study big companies have significantly higher participation levels of H&S officers than SMEs.

Do these surveys also investigate the impact of training, information and consultation over working conditions also in SMEs?

There is no research on the impact of training, information and consultation on working conditions. According to information provided by the Labour Inspectorate, the general level of knowledge about working conditions and, in particular, H&S in companies in Austria is very low and unsatisfactory.

When surveys lack, are there qualitative studies investigating the impact of involvement and training on working conditions and health in SMEs?

A qualitative study of the Austrian Federal Institute of Health Affairs carried out in 1999 focused on the topic of management systems for health and safety in small enterprises. The study conducted interviews with employers and H&S officers in 15 small companies in Austria, in six companies with 1-20 employees and in nine companies with 21-55 employees. The report does not provide any information on the selection criteria. Problems addressed were the following: responsibilities and activities of H&S; problem solving strategies (indicated by examples) with regard to health risks, accidents, sick leave; decision making procedures; formal and informal communication possibilities; information practice; training needs; … Companies that had already set measures with regard to health and safety have three common factors: First, the employer is convinced of the benefit of such measures. Second, there are established well-defined responsibilities for health and safety in the company. Third, employees are involved in decision making processes with regard to health and safety matters.

Another noticeable result of the study was the request for more information or, more precisely, for practice relevant information material, for information campaigns on the benefit of investments in H&S and for better consulting services in H&S matters. It shows that the lack of information is one of the most pressing issues regarding the support of H&S activities in small firms.

Develop on the findings / results. Please mention / enumerate / give links.

The survey of the Labour inspectorate gives the impression of a very high level of information/consultation and participation of H&S officers even in small companies. From a critical point of view this is a clear overestimation. The study was not detailed enough to show what exactly ‘participation’ actually refers to. Neither does it say anything on the impact of the detected high participation level on working conditions and health and safety at the workplace. Much rather it seems to be more a study of formal processes of participation than of its qualitative aspects.

The results of the qualitative study referred to are for at least two reasons not very useful. On the one hand it was carried out in the late 1990s and therefore very likely outdated. On the other hand the report on the results does not elaborate on methodological or interpretation aspects. The only reason this questionnaire is mentioned here is the lack of studies on this issue in Austria, especially with regard to SMEs.

5. Good practices for SMEs: company/territorial level

Are there well known examples for specific collective agreements in a given sector covering working conditions, H&S in particular in SME’s which go far beyond legislation? Are they exceptions or the rule? Please report at least one example at national level and at least two at territorial/company level.

In general, it is very difficult to find good practice examples with regard to H&S in collective agreements. The main challenge is to assure and control the implementation of the Employee Protection Act. We found no specific regulations for SMEs.

On a national level, at least two examples of collective agreements on sector level were found where H&S is a topic. In the savings bank sector, each bank is bound to put aside 20 Euro annually per employee to finance measures for workplace health protection which go beyond legislation. Management and works council have to agree on the purpose the funds are spent on. A similar regulation is in place for shift workers in the chemical sector (50 Euro per shift worker per year) but without the obligation for measures to go beyond legislation.

At company level, we have come across/ an agreement on the handling of alcohol/drug abuse among employees in a company in the health care sector, presenting a graduated scheme including the offering of detox treatment and continuous contact with the company management during the entire process.


  • HSE (2005), Obstacles preventing worker involvement in health and safety. Research Report 296.

  • Walters D. (2002), Regulating health and safety in small enterprises. PIE, Peter Lang, Brussels

  • Sicherheitsvertrauenspersonen. Aufgaben und Verpflichtungen von Sicherheitsvertrauenspersonen in einer Sicherheits- und Gesundheitsschutz-Organisation im Betrieb, Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Arbeit – Arbeitsinspektion, November 2007

  • Österreichisches Bundesinstitut für Gesundheitswesen (200): Managmentsysteme für den Sicherheits- und Gesundheitsschutz in Kleinbetrieben

Manfred Krenn, FORBA

[1] Question 28a_1 “Have you undergone: Training paid for or provided by your employer, or by yourself if you are self-employed?”; Question 28a_2: “Training paid for or provided by your employer, or by yourself if you are self-employed - number of days”; Question 28b_1. “Have you undergone: Training paid for by yourself?”; Question 28b_2. “Training paid for by yourself - number of days”; Question 28c: “Have you undergone: On-the-job training?”; Question 28d. “Have you undergone: Other forms of on-site training and learning?”

[2] Question 30b: “Over the past 12 months have you been consulted about changes in the organisation of work and / or your working conditions?”; Question 30d. “Over the past 12 months have you discussed work-related problems with your boss?”

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