UGT analyses industrial accident and illness rate

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In its 2002 'Report on industrial accidents and occupational illnesses', Spain's UGT trade union confederation examines the country's high industrial accident and illness rate and seeks to identify the causes. These are found to to be lack of compliance with the relevant legislation by companies, and the high level of subcontracting, temporary contracts and temporary agency work, which particularly affects young workers.

In early 2003, the youth department of the General Workers’ Confederation (Unión General de Trabajadores) - one of Spain's two main trade union confederations - published its 2002 'Report on industrial accidents and occupational illnesses' (Informe sobre Siniestralidad). The study examines the industrial accident and occupational illness rate in Spain, based on a number of sources, and seeks to identify the causes. Spain's industrial accident rate is one of Europe's highest (ES0209201N and ES0202213F) and a major issue for the social partners, especially trade unions (ES0301208F).

Increasing accident rate

The industrial accident rate in Spain has grown steadily since 1994. In 2001, the total number of accidents declared during working time stood at 1,812,507, which represented an increase of 87,277 accidents or 5% over 2000. Of these accidents, 958,493 involved time off work, 2.5% more than in the previous year. The number of deaths fell by 10% (to 1,021 in 2001), whereas the number of minor accidents rose by 2% (to 945,480) and serious accidents by 6% (to 11,992). The number of occupational illnesses has increased over the past last decade at a higher rate than industrial accidents. In 2001 there were 21,216 cases of occupational illness, 20% more than in 2000. The number of minor illnesses involving time off increased by 18% to 20,103.

Industrial accidents and occupational illnesses, 1997-2001
. 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 Change from 2000-1
Industrial accidents 1,276,385 1,432,728 1,606,999 1,730,230 1,812,507 82,277 5%
Accidents in working time involving time off: 676,644 752,882 867,772 935,274 958,493 23,219 2%
- minor 665,181 741,162 854,923 922,785 945,480 22,695 2%
- serious 10,393 10,649 11,739 11,359 11,992 633 6%
- fatal 1,070 1,071 1,110 1,130 1,021 -109 -10%
Accidents in working time not involving time off 600,191 679,846 739,227 794,956 854,014 59,058 7%
Work-related road accidents involving time off: 43,659 51,961 62,379 69,180 73,785 4,605 7%
- minor 41,139 49,055 59,339 66,059 70,713 4,654 7%
- serious 2,136 2,486 2,578 2,676 2,625 -51 -2%
- fatal 384 420 462 445 447 2 0%
Occupational illnesses 8,700 11,064 14,755 17,858 21,216 3,358 19%
Occupational illnesses involving time off: 8,440 10,428 14,119 17,261 20,281 3,020 17%
- minor 8,275 10,241 13,928 17,090 20,103 3,013 18%
- serious 164 185 190 169 177 8 5%
- fatal 1 2 1 2 1 -1 -50%
Occupational illnesses not involving time off 260 636 636 597 935 338 57%

Source: UGT health and safety at work office.

The number of declared accidents increased in all sectors over 2000-1, with the exception of agriculture (where there were 41,084 in 2001), in which the fall, according to UGT, seems to be influenced by the systematic drop in the number of workers in this sector, and the replacement of Spanish nationals by immigrant workers who declare fewer accidents. A particularly high increase was observed in industry, with 13% more accidents in 2001 than in 2000.

Analysis of causes

The report identifies three main causes of industrial accidents and occupational illnesses, as follows.

Lack of employers' knowledge

According to the Fourth National Survey of Working Conditions carried out by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs in 2000, 80% of employers claim a lack of knowledge of the Law on the Prevention of Occupational Risks (Ley de Prevención de Riesgos Laborales, LPRL) (ES0202210F). Furthermore, 24% of the respondents stated that in their workplaces no preventive activity had been carried out in this area in the last few years, and in the service sector this figure rises to 30%. Failure to observe the LPRL, lack of information and lack of training are described by the report as the main reasons for the rising number of industrial accidents and illnesses in Spain.

Company failure to carry out health and safety activities

Only 30.2% of companies carry out an initial assessment of risks, according to the Ministry's 2000 survey. Furthermore, only 19% stated that they had carried out specific studies on risks in the past year, while only 35% had attended information sessions on risks. The sectors with the poorest results in this area are retail, and hotels/catering and other services. UGT also considers that there are other aspects that are neglected in the area of health and safety. For example, 43% of the survey respondents stated that they had never had a medical check-up in their company.

Employment and working conditions

The 2000 working conditions survey suggests that an important factor in accidents and illnesses is job design. Some 30.5% of workers claimed that at least one aspect of their work situation was inadequate and the figure was particularly high in construction (46.3%).

In relation to the physical workload, the survey found the most common work posture to be 'frequently standing and walking' (40%) and 'sitting but getting up often' (27.5%). Another risk factor, 'repetitive movements', was common in manufacturing (42%), while 'maintaining the same posture for over half of the working time' affected above all workers in administration, banking and other services. Musculo-skeletal complaints were most frequent, particularly those affecting the back and neck, the latter particularly among women.

Mental workloads are also important at work, according to the report. In the survey, 58% of respondents stated that they maintain a high level of attention, while 35% of respondents stated that they maintain a fast work rate, particularly in social services, administration and banking.

Employment conditions are an even more important factor in industrial accidents and illnesses than working conditions, according to the report. All the risk factors increase among workers with temporary contracts, those working for temporary work agencies (ES0009106N) (over 1,334,000 Spanish workers), and those working for subcontractor firms (ES0212205F) (in 21% of Spanish companies, workers employed by different employers work together and in 3% of workplaces over half the employees do not belong to the main company). The pressures to which these workers are subjected and the lack of experience and training in health and safety help to explain the phenomenon, the report states. According to the report, the likelihood of a temporary worker having an accident is twice that of a worker with an open-ended contract.

The major presence of small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the Spanish economy - normally with fewer resources to carry out health and safety measures - the habitual use of temporary employment, and the correspondingly high employee turnover are other important factors to bear in mind in order to understand the level of industrial accidents, the report states. Another is that in companies with fewer than 30 workers, according to Article 35.2 of the LPRL, the role of the risk prevention delegate (delegado de prevención de riesgos) - ie the workers' representative responsible for monitoring fulfilment of the LPRL - is performed by the workers' delegate, so there is no person with exclusive responsibilities for this area.

A point stressed by the report is the greater number of industrial accidents among young people. The typical profile of a worker who suffers an industrial accident is that of a low-qualified person aged 16-25 with a contract of less than six months' duration, working in a company with fewer than 50 workers. According to Eurostat, the average annual number of accidents for workers aged 18-24 in the EU is 5,725 per 100,000 employees, double the figure for workers aged 45-54. In Spain, the number of accidents per 100,000 employees is almost double these levels, both among young workers and among the rest of the population. Temporary employment may be the factor behind this. Of course, in the underground economy, which is impossible to measure, the situation is probably far worse.

Commentary

One of the fundamental indicators of living and working conditions is the level of industrial accidents and occupational illnesses. The fact that employment and working conditions in Spain are below the European average helps to explain its higher number of accidents and occupational illnesses. The solutions must be sought in two areas: an improvement in the general employment conditions of workers; and intervention in workplaces (awareness-raising, training, inspection etc) to achieve compliance with the Law on the Prevention of Occupational Risks. In order to put a halt to the rise in accidents and illnesses, there must be concerted action between the state and the social partners involving changes in the framework of production and labour regulations. (Daniel Albarracín, CIREM Foundation)

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