Health and safety at work examined

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Since 2003, legislation on health and safety at work in Cyprus has been harmonised with EU norms, while the social partners have shown signs of a new willingness to contribute to its effective implementation. This article gives an overview of the most recent developments in this areas, along with an assessment of the situation, both on the institutional level and in practice, in mid-2004.

Until recently, the question of health and safety at work was arguably neglected in Cyprus to a great degree. However, beginning in the mid-1990s, and since 2000 in particular, changes have been effected which are aimed at organising existing institutions on a more rational basis.

Institutional framework

The most important institutional developments related to health and safety at work have been:

  • the creation of the Pancyprian Safety and Health Council;
  • the establishment of the Cyprus Safety and Health Association; and
  • the introduction at the workplace of safety officers and safety committees.

The Pancyprian Safety and Health Council is a tripartite body established by Law 89(I) of 1996 on health and safety at work. The Council advises the Minister of Labour and Social Insurance on policy-making in the field of occupational safety and health. Although, the Council has the potential to be particularly useful, in practice it is widely regarded as having underperformed, over the last few years in particular, and as having failed effectively to achieve the purpose for which it was set up. This view is shared by the Ministry of Labour and Social Insurance, which is seeking to upgrade and strengthen the institution and has entered into a dialogue with the social partners on the issue.

The Cyprus Safety and Health Association (CySHA) was established in 1991. Its primary objective is an 'active contribution and participation in efforts to protect and promote health and safety at work and prevent risks concerning the public in general'. In the 13 years of its existence, the CySHA has organised important ground-breaking conferences, mapped out policy and opened up new horizons in matters of safety and health. With the adoption of new legislation on occupational safety and health - and specifically in accordance with the provisions of Regulation 6 on management of safety and health issues at work (Regulations 173/2002) regarding protection and prevention services - the CySHA is studying the emerging need to introduce a register of people shown to have the necessary know-how and skills to function in the field of occupational safety and health. The CySHA will set the criteria for acquiring the title of 'competent person in occupational safety and health' (CPOSH). The CySHA, whose membership stood at 126 in November 2003, is represented on the Pancyprian Safety and Health Council. Since July 1994, it has published the journal Safety and Health twice a year.

Law 89(I) of 1996 introduced the institution of safety officer (SO) in Cyprus. On the basis of the provisions of this law and the relevant Regulations on safety committees (Regulatory Administrative Act 134/1997), employers in certain areas of economic activity (29 in number) in the private and public sector, which employ more than 200 employees in accordance with an Order issued by the Minister of Labour and Social Insurance, are obliged to appoint full-time SOs. People appointed as SOs must be approved by the Minister of Labour and Social Insurance. In 1996, when the new Law on safety and health at work was introduced, the 1988 Law on safety in the workplace was abolished and replaced. There are 38 SOs currently registered with the Department of Labour Inspection at the Ministry of Labour, working for 33 different employers.

In 1997, Regulations on workplace safety committees (SCs) were issued under the 1996 law, and at the same time regulations dating from 1988 and 1993 were abolished. Initially limited to specific industries, a process has started - in line with an almost unanimous decision of the Pancyprian Safety and Health Council addressed to the Minister of Labour - of extending the institution of SCs to all sectors of economic activity. To this end, the number of SCs is expected to increase, since the services sector in particular has the greatest number of employees per undertaking.

According to the most recent available data, the situation in the mid-1990s, after SCs were extended from 25 to 29 sectors of economic activity, was as set out in table 1 below:

Table 1. Coverage and extent of safety committees (SCs)
No. of sectors covered 29
Total workforce of sectors c. 100,000
No. of establishments covered by relevant order 978
Workforce of establishments covered 31,764
No. of establishments responding to survey 451
Response rate 45.6%
No. of SCs set up in responding establishments 393
No. of members of these SCs 1,580

Since that time, although the legislative framework is seen as being particularly helpful, the institution of SCs is believed to have slackened off. Contributing to this, according to commentators, has been unwillingness among employers along with a failure of trade union organisations to promote and support the institution. Judging from the state of implementation of the relevant legislation, critics argue that neither SOs nor SCs have been successful. To a large extent, this is said to be due to a lack of workplace health and safety culture.

These developments have contributed to an increase in accidents at work. The official statistical data from the Department of Labour Inspection give some indication of this - see table 2 below:

Accidents at work reported, 1992-2002
. 1992 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002
All accidents 1,078 1,009 1,005 1,015 979 914 1,010 1,090 1,003 1,064 1,670
Fatal accidents 8 8 10 9 2 14 7 13 10 9 17

Source: Department of Labour Inspection.

Legislative change

On the legislative level, the harmonisation - which began in January 2003 - of practically all the laws and regulations on health and safety at work with European Union norms and their implementation is considered to be a particularly important development. The provisions of the new legislation on occupational safety and health, and in particular the regulations passed in the course of the last four years, seek to allow workers to function in the area of occupational safety and health according to the letter and the spirit of the EU legislation.

Harmonisation is being achieved through the Safety and Health at Work Law, as amended between 1996 and 2003. On the basis of this law, 23 Regulations have also been passed with regard to various individual issues, such as:

  • the minimum requirements for safety and health at work with visual display screen equipment Regulations (455/2001);
  • the minimum requirements for safety and health at work of workers with fixed-duration employment or temporary employment Regulations (184/2002); and
  • the Maternity Protection Regulations (255/2002).

State and social partners

On behalf of the state, the Department of Labour Inspection of the Ministry of Labour and Social Insurance is competent and fully responsible for enforcing the legislation regarding safety and health at work. Considered to be fully equipped with the appropriate material and technical infrastructure (eg equipment and laboratories), it currently has 46 permanent officers of various grades, encompasses four sectors of activity, and carries out the practical work of inspection through its four district offices. The Department of Labour Inspection is represented on the Pancyprian Safety and Health Council, and is responsible for coordinating annual 'prevention of occupational accidents and diseases' campaigns.

As regards the position of the social partners, as noted above, to date neither the employer organisations nor the trade unions have been regarded as strong supporters of the existing health and safety at work institutions. For example, critics claim that the unions did not lend the expected support to the institution of safety committees, while the employers' organisations avoided their share of the responsibility. However, there has recently been a trend - also reflected in a Working life and European enlargement (WLE) programme, the most recent and specialised safety and health programme implemented in Cyprus - for both employers' organisations and trade unions to express their will to move towards the implementation of the new harmonised legislation. In addition, the issue of health and safety at work is increasingly becoming a primary training module in the programmes for training in 'union affairs' carried out by both sides. Finally, two trade unions have already staffed safety and health departments and it appears that the rest of the unions will soon move in this direction.

Commentary

There is no doubt that until quite recently questions of safety and health at work were not given the requisite attention, either on the institutional level or in practice. The lack of a culture, inadequate knowledge of health and safety matters, the relatively meagre legislative framework before 2000 and the fact that its implementation was almost exclusively limited to industry, along with a lack of effective control mechanisms, led to a number of problems, the most important being an increase in occupational accidents. The new specialised legislation, fully harmonised with the European acquis, in conjunction with the emerging willingness of the social partners to contribute to its effective implementation, are now laying the foundations on which workplace health and safety conditions can be significantly improved, by putting into practice the announcements which have been made from time to time but have not yet been implemented. (Mimis Theodotou, ETYK)

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