Steady reduction in accidents at work

Statistics indicate a long-term decline in the number of accidents at work in Slovakia. The average number of accidents per 100 employees fell to its lowest recorded level in 2004, and serious injuries at work have followed the same trend. Despite these favourable developments, a number of problems remain. For example, the average length of employee absences due to incapacity as a result of injuries sustained at work is increasing.

The number of accidents at work constitutes a significant indicator of occupational safety and health. This article looks at recent developments in Slovakia and assess them in relation to long-term trends.

In a long-term perspective, the number of industrial accidents per 100 employees fell from 3.42 in 1970 to a low of 0.86 in 2004, according to the Statistical Office of the Slovak Republic (Štatistický úrad Slovenskej republiky, ŠÚ SR). Year-on-year comparison of statistical data shows that the values of almost all occupational injury indicators have fallen in Slovakia. Occupational accidents fell by 10.75% in 2003, as against a fall in the number of employees of only 0.58%. At the same time, healthcare occasioned by occupational injury required 7.34% fewer days of absence due to work incapacity in 2003 than in 2002. On average, 2,031 employees a day did not work due to occupational injury, 161 fewer than in the previous year.

On the other hand, the average number of days off work due to each accident at work is increasing: in 1970 the figure was 27.85 days, but by 2004 it had reached almost 42 days. This represents a year-on-year increase of 3.84%. One possible inference from these data is that while the number of occupational accidents has fallen, their seriousness has increased.

Occupational accidents by sector

Four sectors account for almost 75% of all occupational accidents in Slovakia - industry, public administration/defence, agriculture/forestry and construction (see table 1 below).

Table 1. Share of selected sectors in total accidents at work, 2004
Sector Proportion
Industry 37.76%
Public administration and defence 17.68%
Agriculture and forestry 11.68%
Construction 6.43%

Source: ŠÚ SR.

The highest accident rate - 7.7 per 100 employees - was in mineral extraction. This is nine times higher than the national average. Other sectors exceeding the national average are: wood processing and manufacturing (4.49 times the average); agriculture and forestry (2.72); vehicle production (2.45); production of non-metal mineral products (2.11); construction and building works (2.05); production of machines and devices (2.04); and food and tobacco (2.03). Year-on-year statistical comparison indicates that the rate of occupational accidents has been increasing in some sectors: coke and refined crude oil products; rubber and plastics; and chemicals, chemical products and fibres.

By type of worker, the highest rate of occupational accidents is among auxiliary and unskilled workers, together with fitters, welders, drivers and machine operators.

Main causes of accidents

The majority of occupational accidents (about 72%) were due to three main areas of work: (i) lifting heavy weights and handling materials caused 31.52% of all occupational accidents; (ii) 25.38% occurred in working facilities or transportation areas, for example as a result of falls from stairs and ladders; while (iii) machinery, especially circular saws, metal-forming machines, food-processing and construction machines and earth-moving machinery, caused 15.15% of occupational accidents. This breakdown of occupational accidents has remained virtually constant since 1996.

Employee inattention at the time the accident occurred and natural hazards were the most frequent causes of accidents at work, at 72.07%. Risk-taking and violation of safety rules and operating instructions by employees were other frequent causes (9.09%) of accidents at work. This mostly took the form of unauthorised and risky interference in the mechanisms and parts of machines during their operation with the aim of repairing or adjusting them, or of using them for purposes other than those they were designed for. Entry into prohibited areas also belongs in this category.

With regard to age, younger employees aged 18 to 30 suffer accidents most frequently, accounting for 31.26%. Employees aged 40 to 50 are the second largest group. January and June are the most dangerous months and Monday and Tuesday the most dangerous days.

Serious occupational accidents

Serious occupational accidents - including both fatal accidents and accidents having a major impact on an employee's health and working capacity - are particularly important. There has been a long-term reduction in the number of serious occupational accidents. In 1970, the frequency of fatal accidents at work was 15.36 per 100,000 employees. According to the latest figures this now stands at 4.67. Serious occupational accidents, twice as frequent as fatal occupational accidents, have shown a similar decrease.

Three sectors account for the majority of serious accidents - industry, construction/building works and transport/storage/communication (see table 2 below).

Table 2. Share of serious occupational accidents, selected sectors, 2004
Sector Share of serious occupational accidents
Industry 32.48%
Construction and building works 17.52%
Transport, storage and communication 12.41%

Source: ŠÚ SR.

The highest proportion of serious occupational accidents was recorded among drivers of motor vehicles, auxiliary and unskilled workers, bricklayers and fitters. In a long-term perspective, transport is the most dangerous form of work.

The great majority of serious occupational accidents - almost 84% - are concentrated in four main categories. Motor vehicles are the most frequent cause of serious occupational accidents in Slovakia, at 33%. The second major category is working facilities or transportation areas, where almost 21% of accidents were caused by falls, eg from stairs and ladders. The third major cause of serious occupational accidents is machinery, especially circular saws, metal-forming machines, food-processing and construction machines and earth-moving machinery, accounting for 16% of accidents. The fourth category consists of lifting weights and handling materials - such accidents arise from falling items, splits, sharp edges and fragments and so on. This category accounts for 14% of accidents at work.

A high proportion (45.5%) of these accidents were not due to the negligence of employers or the actions of the person affected, but were caused rather by the fact of someone not being tall or strong enough to carry out a particular task, or because of such unpredictable occurrences as a heart attack or collapse. Natural hazards were also a factor, even when employer and employee met the necessary safety requirements. Another very important factor in many occupational accidents is other people, for example, accidents on the road caused by other drivers.

Employers are responsible for approximately 28% of serious accidents at work, including through inadequate work organisation or supervision. Such accidents often involve falls. The lack or inadequacy of protective equipment, as well as inadequate safety measures with regard to machines, workplaces and workers, are also important here. Serious occupational accidents caused by misuse or poor installation of equipment or machinery, especially machinery for metal forming, and by the handling of materials are also quite significant.

Serious occupational accidents which occurred as a result of a failure to observe occupational safety and health rules and instructions represent almost 27%. This occurred mainly in the operation of transport vehicles and took the form of accidents on public or private (company) roads.

The age category hardest hit by serious occupational accidents is people 40-50 years of age, followed by those between 30 and 40. Young employees and employees of 60 and over suffered the fewest serious accidents. The most dangerous months for serious accidents are July and October and the most dangerous days Monday and Wednesday.

Commentary

The positive development of most occupational accident indicators shows increased efforts in terms of national occupational safety and health policy. Particularly important in this regard are legislation, consistent enforcement by the labour inspectorate (SK0311103F) and more adequate implementation by employers.

However, there are still deficiencies and more measures are required in some areas. A large proportion of serious occupational accidents are due to so-called 'objective' reasons, eg natural hazards or inattention on the part of the person affected. Such accidents are not the result of employer irresponsibility or the deliberate violation of safety regulations by employees. The current practice of identification and categorisation of occupational accidents aims mainly at discovering their direct cause. However, deeper and more detailed analysis of causes could help us to understand occupational accidents more generally. In several EU countries, the investigation of occupational accidents seeks to identify the causes of accidents in close relation to employers' failure to take adequate steps. The increase in the number of days of absence due to serious accidents at work in Slovakia seems to indicate that occupational accidents are growing in seriousness.

Comparing this with the constant reduction in the relative number of occupational accidents per 100 employees, the question arises whether employers in fact report all accidents to the relevant authorities. The sanctions that they are likely to incur for violations are reason enough for avoidance for unscrupulous employers.

Such violations can have unpleasant consequences for employees, especially when the effects manifest themselves at a later date (eg asbestos) and give rise to unexpected health problems. The investigation of so-called 'near accidents' in which only good fortune prevented actual injury from occurring (for example, where a dangerous item fell where someone would normally have been standing) remains an open question. In EU 15 countries the causes of near accidents are investigated on an equal footing with actual occupational accidents, and sanctions imposed accordingly. As the number of near accidents is usually much higher than that of actual accidents, their investigation allows employers to improve and develop preventive measures in the area of occupational safety and health at work and progressively to eliminate threats to employees' lives and health. (Teodor Hatina, Bratislava Centre for Work and Family Studies)

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