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

  • Observatory: EurWORK
  • Topic:
  • 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 Working Conditions Survey has indicated that 59% of Estonian employees say that their work is having a bad influence on their health, being among the highest in Europe. Thus, H&S is an area that needs policy intervention in Estonia. A working environment representative must be appointed in all companies, no matter their size. The number and the kind of H&S representativeness varies depending on the size of the company. Still, inspections of the Labour Inspectorate show that often these requirements are not conformed to. The area of H&S in SMEs is rather poorly researched in Estonia, though reducing the number of work accidents and improving H&S conditions in companies require more systematic and informed approach.

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?

The 1989 Framework directive on H&S is implemented to Estonian legislation at full extent in the Occupational Health and Safety Act. There are no exact data on the implementation of the directive in companies. However some indication may be derived based on different data sources. For instance, according to the reports of the Labour Inspectorate (Tööinspektsioon) from 2008, employee training and guidance on H&S is good in more than half of the companies checked (58%), while it is unsatisfacotry in the other half (42%). This means that in almost half of the companies, employees are not informed of the risks imposed to them in their working environment and measures to avoid these risks. The working environment was checked in a total of 2,351 companies in 2008. There is no information on the size of the companies checked.

From the 2008 Labour Force Survey data, it may be concluded that while employees in SMEs are mostly informed of the health and safety risks imposed to them in their working environment, they are consulted not as often (i.e. less than half of the employees in SMEs are consulted on issues related to their working environment). Thus, it may be concluded that information of workers is rather well implemented in companies, while the implementation of the consultation of workers requires more attention. See the next answer for patterns according to company size.

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

According to the Labour Force Survey (LFS) 2008 data, there are no large differences between companies with different sizes in the number of employees saying that they are well or very well informed of the health and safety risks attached to filling their job tasks. The share of such employees ranges from 95% in micro enterprises to 97% in medium sized enterprises. The share is 99% in large enterprises. Thus, information of workers on H&S is well implemented across all companies.

Based on the same survey data it may be concluded that consulting employees on their employment conditions is not as frequent as informing them. Both in micro and small companies, 39% of the employees say that during the past year they have been consulted on changes in working arrangements or issues of working conditions. The share is 43% in large companies and 45% in medium companies. Thus, while the medium sized companies are more similar to the large ones, the micro and small companies follow a somewhat different pattern though differences are not remarkable (4-6 percentage points).

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

In terms of handling the issue in legislation, H&S is the main focus. The H&S issues are managed by the Ministry of Social Affairs (Sotsiaalministeerium) and regulated in the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Legislation does not include the "well-being at work" concept.

At the same time, some indication of the "well-being at work" concept is given in the Estonian Action Plan for Growth and Jobs 2008-2011, where the H&S issues are elaborated under the heading of working life quality.

- 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 Estonia, the social partner intitiatives concentrate on the H&S issues in the economy at large not differentiating between companies with different sizes. Though, government activities show first signs of concentration on the H&S in SMEs. For instance, informing self-employed persons of the H&S requirements is proposed as a measure for reducing work accidents in the Estonian Action Plan for Growth and Jobs 2008-2011. Also the Labour Inspectorate has initiated a pilot project to provide training to managers of micro and small companies on the working environment issues. The pilot project is financed by the European Social Fund (ESF).

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 working environment council is mandatory in companies with at least 50 employees. Depending on the risk factors and the number of previous occupational accidents and illnesses in the company, the Labour Inspectorate has the righ to demand the creation of the working environment council in smaller companies as well.

According to the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the working environment council is an enterprise level cooperation body with an equal representation of the employer and employee elected representatives. The council solves H&S related issues in the company e.g. by regularly analysing the working conditions and occupational accidents and illnesses in the company, proposing possible solutions upon emerging problems and monitoring their implementation, participating in any changes made in the company affecting H&S environment etc. In 2008, more than half (69%) of the companies checked by the Labour Inspectorate had implemented the working environment council in their company. However, only a small proportion of the companies, which are obliged to set up working environment councils (i.e. have at least 50 employees), are monitored (in 2008, 89% of the companies checked had less than 50 employees).

At the same time, the Working Life Barometer 2005 indicated that only 8% of the respondents say that they have a working environment council formed in their job while 36% of the respondents are employed in companies with more than 50 employees. Thus, according to 2005 data the implementation of the requirement in companies is rather poor.

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

For risk prevention in companies, two types of representatives are required. A working environment specialist must be in place in all companies, no matter the size. The specialist is appointed by the employer to monitor working conditions and to take the necessary measures to reduce the H&S risks at work. The specialist must have received special training or be qualified on the working environment related issues. The employer can fulfill the duties of the specialist in case of necessary training. According to the Labour Inspectorate, in 2008 59% of companies checked had a specialist appointed although all companies must have a working environment specialist.

A working environment representative must be elected in companies with at least 10 employees. The representative is elected by employees for a term of up to four years. The representative monitors the working environment in companies and acts as a representative of employees in consultations with the employer. In companies with less than 10 employees, the employer must consult employees directly. According to the Labour Inspectorate, in 2008 55% of the companies had an elected working environment representative in place.

The working environment specialist and representative are distinct from the working environment council, which is a body including both employer and employee representatives (see also first section of p2 above). Depending on the size of the company, each working environment body must be in place.

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

The working environment council registers emerging problems in the working environment. This may be based on observation by the council members or also individual complaints. The council makes proposals to the employer for solving these problems. However, the employer is not obliged to implement these proposals (though, the employer must justify not implementing the proposals). Thus, the H&S committee has the right to propose solutions, but initating action is still dependant on the employer.

- Do regional/territorial risk prevention representatives exist, covering several small SME’s?

The H&S bodies described above are enterprise-level institutions. There are no regional/territorial risk prevention representatives in Estonina covering more than one company.

- 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?

All H&S representatives in companies must have special training, which is financed by the employer. There is no assessment of the adequacy of the training. However in order to improve the quality of the training, the government plans to introduce a unified methodology and training program for training of H&S representatives during 2007-2013 (Estonian Action Plan for Growth and Jobs 2008-2011).

- 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?

The right to carry out surveys or call in outside experts for the H&S Committee is not regulated in the Estonian legislation. At the same time, one of the responsibilities of the working environment council is to conduct analysis of occupational accidents and working environment. There is no information on the adequacy of such analysis in Estonian companies and the extent to which outside experts are included.

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

The consultations between the working environment council and the Labour Inspectorate are not regulated in legislation. Though, the possibility exists to consult the local labour inspectors or the lawyer of the Labour Inspectorate.

- 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?

The employers must conduct annual internal audit of the working environment. This is submitted to the working environment council for reviewing who has the right to make proposals for improvement. The employer is not obliged to implement the proposals, though not accepting must be justified by the employer. In 2008, 67% of the companies inspected by the Labour Inspectorate had implemented the internal audit of the working environment.

- 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?

According to a Working Environment Survey (in English) from 2000, 91% of the companies claimed that a good working environment is a precondition for successful business activities. Just 8% of the companies referred that the working environment needs minimum attention so that it would not inhibit working. There are no large differences between companies with different sizes: a good working environment is regarded as a competitive advantage from 89% in micro companies to 98% in companies with 150 or more employees.

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.

There are no specific arrangements on H&S in SMEs, these do not differ from that of national level regulation. Also, there are no territorial OSH representatives in place. The labour inspectors have the authority to intervene at workplace, and have the role of informing and consulting the employers of the H&S requirements in companies.

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.

On enterprise level, social partners have a role in H&S issues as far as their representatives are included in the activities of the working environment council. At national level, social partners are represeted in the tripartite Advisory Committee on Working Environment. The main task of the committee is to participate in the development and implementation of H&S policies.

In order to promote H&S in SMEs, the Labour Inspectorate has undertaken a pilot project financed by the ESF to provide H&S training to managers of micro and small companies. The pilot project tests a specially developed learning program on two groups of managers. This will be the basis for developing a more extensive training program over the period of 2010-2014. The training will be provided free of charge for the companies. Also, in order to promote local level experiences, since 2009 the Labour Inspectorate has been arranging information days on H&S, which also includes dissemination of good practices in companies. However, this initiative is not targeted specifically to SMEs.

The social partners and the Labour Inspectorate have been cooperating in the work of the statutory Advisory Committee on Working Environment. However, the committee has not been working regularly in recent years anymore. Thus, the cooperation on H&S is currently more on an ad-hoc basis.

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?

Research comparing the working conditions in companies with different sizes is scarce in Estonia. In a Working Environment Survey (in English) from 2000, the companies were asked to assess their compliance to the H&S regulations. The data showed that smaller companies evaluate their working conditions more corresponding to the requirements set by the law – 83% in micro companies, 75% in small companies, 69% in companies with 50-149 employees and 75% in companies with more than 150 employees. According to the survey, it is so because of the field of activity, bigger mobility and shorter period of existence of SMEs, which has enabled them to take immediately into consideration contemporary requirements of working conditions. Also, the survey revealed that there are no significant differences in employee satisfaction with working conditions in companies with different sizes.

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

There are no surveys investigating the impact of training or information and consultation over working conditions.

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

There are no qualitative studies investigating the impact of involvement and training on working conditions.

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

Only one survey can be pointed out which describes working conditions in SMEs: EMOR, Working Environment Survey, March 2000. Available on-line at:

The main conclusions from this survey are described above.

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.

There are no national level collective agreements covering H&S issues. Also, H&S issues can not be included in sectoral level agreements, as only pay conditions and working- and rest time conditions can be extended to companies and employees not affiliated to the signatory parties. In addition, available enterprise level examples can only be derived from large companies, which have good level of social partnership. As there is no information collected on the contents of enterprise level agreements in Estonia, it is not possible to indicate to what extent H&S issues are implemented in company level collective agreements.

However, to promote good examples of working environment in companies, different initiatives have been introduced. For example, the business newspaper Äripäev and family journal Pere ja Kodu annually choose the most worker-friendly companies based on the working environment in the company. Also, a network of companies promoting health in companies has been established, which promotes good practicies from different companies, arranges seminars and workshops for its members etc.


  • 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

  • Saar Poll (2005), Tööelu Baromeeter 2005 [Working Life Barometer 2005]. Ministry of Social Affairs, Tallinn.

Kirsti Nurmela, PRAXIS Center for Policy Studies

[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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