Employee protection in small firms

In early 1998, the Austrian social partners are in negotiations over the precise requirements to be placed on small firms from 1999, concerning workplace hazard prevention. While employers emphasise the immediate costs of prevention, the trade unions have been focusing on the savings accruing once the investments are made.

Joining the European Union in 1995 made it necessary for Austria to improve the regulations on employee protection against hazards. This included particularly the appointment of safety officers in enterprises, the documentation of hazards, and the availability and job descriptions of occupational medical practitioners. A plan was drawn up to implement better protection in stages, starting in 1997 with firms employing more than 100 workers. On 1 January 1998, firms with between 51 and 100 employees became subject to the new regulations, and on 1 January 1999 those with 11 to 50 employees will follow. Finally in 2000, the remaining companies with 10 or fewer employees will also be covered.

There is now controversy between the social partners on the precise measures to be implemented. The Austrian Chamber of the Economy (Wirtschaftskammer Österreich, WKÖ), as well as Christian Democrat politicians, argue that small and medium-sized enterprises should not be burdened with further costs. The legal requirement for them to stay up-to-date on technology should therefore be canceled. At issue is the employer's liability in case of a work accident with an older piece of equipment. Against this view, the Austrian Federation of Trade Unions (Österreichischer Gewerkschaftsbund, ÖGB) holds that firms have actually made gross savings of ATS 550 million in 1995 and 1996 from stricter regulations on safety precautions. The effect on the gross national product is estimated to be positive, at ATS 3.3 billion during the same two years.

While the information requirement may end up a thorny issue, other points of unease or controversy should be easier to settle. They concern minimum periods of availability of safety officers in small enterprises, and the obligation to remove existing hazards. The ÖGB is willing to concede that given adequate training the employer might himself or herself take over some of the safety officer's tasks. The training is to be provided by the General Accident Insurance Corporation (Allgemeine UnfallVersicherungsAnstalt, AUVA). The AUVA, funded by the government, is also charged with the task of setting up counseling facilities on safety issues for firms. Small firms will be required to consult counsellors. Only if they are turned away by the centres, will they be exempt from preventive measures.

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