Agreement reached on improving occupational risk prevention

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In January 2003, the Spanish government and social partners reached an agreement on improving occupational risk prevention, with the aim of reducing the country's high industrial accident rate. The measures include the: introduction of a 'bonus/malus' system of increasing or decreasing employers' industrial accident insurance contributions according to their accident rate; an updating of the system of information on industrial accidents; and closer monitoring of compliance with the risk prevention legislation.

On 3 January 2003, an important agreement on occupational risk prevention policies was concluded by the Spanish government, the main trade union confederations - the Trade Union Confederation of Workers’ Commissions (Comisiones Obreras, CC.OO) and the General Workers’ Confederation (Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT) - and the employers' organisations. Negotiations had started in autumn 2002 (ES0211103N), after a year with a high industrial accident rate and a very high number of fatal accidents (ES0209201N), above all in the construction sector (ES0210202F). The agreement involves many initiatives during the forthcoming months, and marks a considerable change of direction from the policy that has been applied in Spain up to now.

Main measures

The main initiatives and proposals set out in the agreement are as follows:

  • introducing a 'bonus/malus' system of reducing or increasing employers' social security contributions based on the development of industrial accidents in the company. The idea is to reduce the contributions for industrial accident insurance for companies in which the accident rate falls, and to increase them for those in which the accident rate rises;
  • increasing the level of employers' industrial accident insurance contributions, in order to adjust the employers' contributions according to the industrial accident rate in each sector and company. This new rate will be applied in 2003. The current rate has remained unaltered since 1978;
  • developing a new system of information on industrial accidents, called the 'Delta Plan', whereby, among other measures, reports of industrial accidents will be transmitted electronically to the labour authorities, which will record more information than they have done up to now. Furthermore, it has been proposed to introduce monthly figures on industrial accidents, including new variables (such as the type of contract of the employees involved, whether the job is subcontracted etc), in order to have a permanent flow of information on industrial accidents and to obtain better knowledge of their causes and characteristics;
  • changing the functioning of the 'mutual insurance societies for industrial accidents and occupational illnesses' (Mutuas de Accidentes de Trabajo y Enfermedades Profesionales - entities set up by companies and collaborating in the social security system). To achieve this there will be a process of reflection in order to adapt the societies to their new functions (their current regulation dates from 1976 and has become obsolete). Furthermore, a tripartite council formed by representatives of the state and the social partners will be created in order to draw up proposals for inclusion in the 'general plan of preventive activities of social security' (Plan General de Actividades Preventivas de la Seguridad Social) - these activities are carried out by the mutual societies; and
  • reinforcing the Labour and Social Security Inspectorate (Inspección de Trabajo y Seguridad Social) through the addition of more civil servants and appointing the 700 regional safety and hygiene officers as expert collaborators. It is also proposed that the Inspectorate should apply priority monitoring and control plans in companies with a high number of industrial accidents.

The agreement also provides for numerous legislative modifications. For example, the Law on the Prevention of Occupational Risks (ES0202210F) will be modified to force companies to introduce and apply an accident prevention plan, and the Infringements and Sanctions Law will be modified to make it possible to fine companies that fail to comply with this obligation, and to highlight the responsibilities of employers. The regulations on prevention services will also be modified in order to improve the effectiveness of auditing in this area by the National Institute for Safety and Hygiene at Work (Instituto Nacional de Seguridad e Higiene en el Trabajo) or the competent organisation in each region (autonomous community). It is also proposed to start a process of dialogue between the social partners in order to draw up a legal regulation on subcontracting (ES0212205F) for the purpose of risk prevention.

Social partners' positions

The positions of the social partners on this issue are apparently quite similar, since the whole range of measures and proposals listed above result from an agreement accepted by the main trade unions and employers' organisations. The agreement was reached in the 'Social dialogue table on occupational risk prevention' (Mesa de Diálogo Social en materia de Prevención de Riesgos Laborales), a forum for discussion between the government and the social partners on this subject. After a recess of many months, on 14 October 2002 the meetings of this body were resumed, with a commitment by the parties to attempt to reach an agreement before the end of the year . These negotiations led to the agreement announced in early 2003.

The trade unions had been calling for these measures for some time, so they are fairly hopeful about the results of the process that is now starting. However, they wish to go much further and have continued to make new proposals. For example, after reaching the above agreement, the main trade unions also suggested that the revenue from the penalties imposed for failure to comply with the Law on the Prevention of Occupational Risks should be used exclusively for prevention activities by the regions. They consider that this would lead to a better distribution of resources.

The employers recognise the importance of joint action with the trade unions on this subject, but also stress the role to be played by the state. They feel that the state should make a greater effort to promote compliance with the regulations on occupational risk prevention, not exclusively through penalties but also by allowing access to means of prevention and training.

Commentary

If the agreed measures are put into practice, it would lead to a very important qualitative change in occupational risk prevention in Spain. Measures such as the increase in contributions for industrial accidents and the modification of the information gathered in accident reporting (long called for by experts and the trade unions) indicate that the unions have finally overcome a barrier which was previously insuperable, despite the clear evidence of a need for change. This adds great symbolic value to the content of these reforms. Furthermore, the application of the 'bonus/malus' system also marks a considerable change in the understanding of how industrial accidents are brought about and managed, because the aim is to show that the accidents can be avoided and that those that do not make efforts to do so will have to pay an additional cost.

Though it is true that the employers have shown a certain reluctance to accept this type of risk prevention measures, the high number of industrial accidents and systematic failure to comply with the Law on the Prevention of Occupational Risks by some (indeed many) companies have led to increasing unrest among employers. This is particularly true in companies that comply with the regulations on prevention, which could face unfair competition. From this viewpoint, the 'bonus/malus' system will favour their corporate interests.

Recently some trade union leaders have criticised the 'bonus/malus' system because it is detrimental to the force of the Law on the Prevention of Occupational Risks, on at least two grounds:

  • increasing contributions for companies with more industrial accidents and decreasing them for those with fewer would be equivalent, for example, to fining drivers who jump a red light and giving a prize to those who stop. While one might agree that those who break the law (whether the Law on the Prevention of Occupational Risks or the Highway Code) must be punished, it is not so easy to find reasons for justifying the payment of bonuses to those observe it, as will happen with the 'bonus/malus' system; and
  • some companies may prefer to pay the additional costs rather than investing in the necessary preventive measures, since the latter may be very expensive and affect work organisation to an extent that employers are unwilling to accept. To some extent, the 'bonus/malus' system is a concession aimed at creating a working environment free of industrial accidents. It even allows companies to maintain a high accident rate providing that they pay for it. A 1995 study from the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Economic incentives for improving the working environment) warned that, according to its figures, 'any loss of production capacity by up to 5%, more or less, due to accidents or illness may normally be supported without any loss of the production target. This means that many companies can afford to operate at full performance even with many accidents.' The 'bonus-malus system' may help to remedy this, but not in all cases, so close attention must be paid to the specific application of all the new measures, since too lax an a application may defeat the expectations.

(Josep Espluga, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona)

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