The impact of industrial accidents

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Industrial accidents remain an important issue on the Spanish industrial relations agenda in 1999, with official figures revealing that over a million industrial accidents occur each year, of which around 660,000 involve time off work, over 10,000 are serious and about 1,000 are fatal. Experts agree that this high rate of industrial accidents is a result of the poor functioning of prevention systems, and that the problem must be approached systematically so as to create a genuine culture of accident prevention both in society at large and at work. This would involve, amongst other changes, substantially improving the sources of information and research into the causes of industrial accidents.

Industrial accidents are one of the major health problems in Spain. All social partners and politicians agree that the industrial accident rate in Spain is one of the highest in Europe, but despite this consensus, accidents are not decreasing and experts believe that effective preventive action is not being taken (ES9806157F).

Social impact and information systems

Industrial accidents in Spain have an enormous impact on the health of workers and on the economy in general, which is reflected in the death, disability and personal suffering of workers on one hand, and in absence from work, loss of productivity and health costs on the other. The general data provided by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs give an idea of the magnitude of the problem: every year over 1 million industrial accidents occur, of which around 660,000 involve time off work, over 10,000 are serious and about 1,000 are fatal. In other words, every year approximately one in eight workers suffers some type of accident, and three to four workers die every day.

Both the annual figures and the current trends are a cause for concern. Between 1990 and 1997 there were almost 5 million non-serious industrial accidents involving time off work, 92,429 serious accidents and 9,220 fatal accidents. In 1990 there were 696,703 industrial accidents involving time off work, and 1,446 deaths. The figures decreased progressively up to 1993, but over the last few years the trend has been reversed and there has been a clear increase in the accident rate again. In the last two years there have been increases of 8.8% and 10.2% respectively. There was also a downward trend in fatal accidents between 1990 and 1996, but between 1996 and 1997 the number increased by 8.7%, and in 1998 the figure remained practically the same. These trends are clear in the construction, services and agricultural sectors in the case of total accidents, and in the services and construction sectors in the case of fatal accidents.

According to the third national survey of working conditions carried out in 1997, the two sectors in which workers perceive most clearly the risk of accidents are construction (87.4%) and metalworking (81.9%). In relation to the type of employment contract, 58% of accidents involve workers on temporary contracts and 49% affect workers with less than one year of service in the company. Also, workers on temporary contracts are more than twice as likely to suffer an accident as those on permanent contracts, especially in the construction sector. This greater risk affects all accident types, all ages, both sexes and all sectors of the economy.

The figures are equally eloquent on the economic impact of accidents at work. Between 1990 and 1997 130,244,200 working hours were lost due to industrial accidents, that is, approximately 15% more than the working hours lost because of strikes. In 1994, 58% of the accidents resulted in three or more days off work, and the total economic cost is estimated at around ESP 2,200 billion, or around 3% of Gross Domestic Product. In 1997 there were 227,800 retirements as a result of industrial accidents and occupational illness with a cost to the social security system of more than ESP 245 billion, in addition to the medical and pharmaceutical costs. For the same year, the total economic cost of industrial accidents was estimated at ESP 2,500 billion.

However, given the limitations in the existing sources of information, the above data should be considered with caution. First, since the reporting system does not allow the monitoring of serious industrial accidents, the number of fatal accidents has probably been underestimated by between 6% and 9%. In addition, the current information system does not take into account the accidents of workers not covered by the social security system, it ignores the number of accidents that occur in the "underground" economy and it probably underestimates the number of slight accidents. Second, there is no adequate description of the cause and type of injury suffered in the accidents, nor of their geographical location in areas smaller than a province. Third, although data on industrial accidents are generally available in large companies, there is far less information in small and medium-sized companies. Finally, there is very little information on relevant economic or social variables. For example, "only four out of 10 companies claim to have data on the annual economic cost of industrial accidents occurring in their workplace". In addition to the lack of precise information on direct costs such as incapacity for work, pensions, compensation or health costs, there is also a lack of information on indirect costs such as damage to equipment, training of replacement workers and loss of competitiveness. Furthermore, the lack of information on the duration of the contracts amongst accident victims in insecure employment prevents the accurate analysis of contract duration and accident risks.

The lack of reliable figures is due to the shortage of human and technical resources and the fact that the existing reporting system focuses on compensation rather than prevention. In addition, there is very little scientific research into occupational health in Spain. A recent study on the topic indicates the low level of institutionalisation of epidemiological research.

On the other hand, in order to assess the magnitude of these figures properly, they must be compared with those from Spain's partners. What is the impact of the Spanish industrial accident rate in comparison with other European countries? Although international comparisons are very difficult due to the heterogeneity of reporting systems and differences in the declaration of accidents resulting from social, economic, legislative and cultural factors, the available data show that the Spanish figures are amongst the highest in the European Union. It is estimated that in Europe about 25 accidents take place for every 1,000 workers with a fatality rate of 6.25 for every 100,000 workers. Spain, Belgium and Luxembourg are the European countries with the highest rate of both industrial accidents and deaths (figures from the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions). It has been calculated that Spain should have some 100,000 industrial accidents fewer in proportion to its working population.

Causes of accidents and preventive strategies

The origin of industrial accidents is to be found in environmental, organisational and personal factors and in the increase in business and employment. One of the causes most often cited is individual responsibility. In Spain, almost two-thirds of workers claim that their job involves an accident risk, but 52% of them think that the main causes of accidents are "overconfidence and habit". In other words, workers believe that they themselves are largely responsible for accidents. On the other hand, only 3.1% of workers think that the accident risk is due to working without sufficient training and only 39% believe that it is due to lack of experience.

Epidemiological research into business activity, occupation types, companies, workplaces and the characteristics of workers allows us to identify the jobs with the highest accident risk and to establish priorities for preventive action. The information available shows that the strategies of reducing industrial accidents by blaming individual workers and requiring them to observe safety measures are usually not as effective as eliminating high risk tasks, changing working procedures for less dangerous ones and installing safety mechanisms.

The differences between countries with similar social, economic and environmental conditions and between companies with similar types of production show that occupational risks can be prevented. The introduction of relatively simple measures in the working environment, working activities, safety systems and in the behaviour of workers can reduce the accident rate in high risk industries by over 50% in a relatively short period of time.

Commentary

Industrial accident figures confirm the poor situation of Spain in comparison with other European countries and the great social impact that this problem has on the health of workers and on society in general.

Improving the reporting and monitoring systems is an urgent necessity. The availability of better information is an indispensable prerequisite for research and prevention: without good information systems there can be no quality research. Both at a national level and in companies, the description and detailed analysis of the causes and effects of industrial accidents and their economic impact is a need that society must not ignore.

Although some companies have started to reduce their accident rate, everything seems to indicate that there is little enforcement of the law. However important the Law on Prevention of Occupational Risks of 1995 is (ES9708216F), in itself it cannot guarantee prevention. To reduce the number of industrial accidents substantially and continuously, the problem must be approached systematically so as to create an authentic culture of prevention in society and at work. This involves substantially improving the sources of information and research into the causes of industrial accidents. It also involves increasing social awareness by demonstrating the advantages of accident prevention, increasing the training of workers, technicians and employers, monitoring and controlling strictly compliance with the labour regulations and evaluating the prevention measures that are adopted. (J Benach, FG Benavides and S Jarque, Universitat Pompeu Fabra)

Source: Annual Report on Social and Labour Statistics, Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs

Figure 3. Fatal industrial accident rates in 15 European countries (per 10,000 workers)

Source: European Working Environment in Figures. Availability and quality of occupational health and safety data in sixteen European countries. Dublin:

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