Workers still exposed to hazardous risks in the workplace

A report on working conditions recently published by the Polish Central Statistical Office presents a comprehensive analysis of the risks faced by employees in the workplace in 2005. The research indicates that some 12% of Polish employees work in hazardous conditions, which means that the scale of the problem has remained practically unchanged over the past few years. Some 20% of the employees working in such risky conditions are women. Of all the employees at risk in the workplace, the largest group was exposed to risks associated with the working environment, such as chemical substances, noise or unsuitable lighting.

About the study

A recent report from the Polish Central Statistical Office (Glówny Urzad Statystyczny, GUS), entitled Working conditions in 2005, outlines the results of research carried out on 60,800 organisations employing a total of 4,819,216 employees, or 45.6% of all Poles employed in the national economy in sectors other than individual farming. The study included establishments with 10 or more employees.

Small enterprises are most prone to problems with assessing the working environment. This is due to the high cost – often exceeding their financial capabilities – of measuring different workplace variables with specialised equipment in order to comply with the highest allowed concentration (HAC) levels regarding substances and highest allowed intensity (HAI) concerning noise levels. In 2002, the then Minister of Labour and Social Policy, Jerzy Hausner, introduced these standards by a new regulation. Additionally, the smallest enterprises are more likely to change the profile of their operations, which impedes sustained monitoring of working conditions.

Key findings

The research carried out by GUS in 2005 shows that 576,475 workers – or 12% of those covered by the study – were exposed to risk in the workplace due to a hazardous working environment, strenuous work or hazards pertaining to working with machinery.

Of these workers, some 100,608, representing almost 20% of the risk group, were women; comparing these latest results with previous studies indicates that there has been little change in the situation of women therefore.

The mining industry consistently ranks as the most dangerous sector to work in (see Table).

Number of employees working in hazardous conditions
Table Layout
Field of activity No. of employees covered by 2005 study Employees working in hazardous conditions No. of employees working in hazardous conditions per 1,000
Total Including women 2004 2005
Mining 176,100 75,155 2,090 417.1 426.8
Manufacturing 2,007,374 307,148 57,280 151.5 153
Electricity, gas, and water generation/supply 213,511 38,141 5,466 170.9 178.6
Construction 307,397 39,509 1,128 131 128.5
Transport, warehousing, communications 456,479 46,667 10,606 104.2 102.3

Source: Author’s summary based on ‘Working conditions in 2005’, GUS, 2006

The Table shows that the level of workplace risk increased in 2005 for many employees, especially for those in mining and in electricity, gas and water supply. Overall, however, a very slight decrease was noted in total risk levels for the entire economy, declining from 577,000 persons or 12.1% in 2004 to the abovementioned 12% level in 2005.

Types of risk

Analysing the types of risks reveals that some 339,296 persons (58%) were exposed to environmental hazards in the workplace. Another 166,914 employees encountered risks due to the strenuous nature of their job, while mechanical factors compromised the safety of 70,265 employees performing work with the use of particularly dangerous machines.

In 2005, up to 150,822 cases of risks were eliminated or reduced; at the same time, however, 89,232 new risks were identified or discovered. Noise levels accounted for the greatest proportion of risks associated with working conditions, representing more than 50% of all risk cases.

Commentary

The data summarised above, most particularly the incidence of risks in specific sectors, make it possible to map the prevalence of workplace risks. A clear correlation exists between the type of activity and the scale of risk. Thus, the most difficult working conditions in 2005 were found in the region of Silesia, a traditional coal mining area in southwestern Poland, where some 20% of the workforce is employed in hazardous working conditions. The safest Polish region for employees is Masovia (Mazowsze) in eastern Poland, with the capital Warsaw, an administrative and business centre, as its principal city; here, less than 7% of employees reported working conditions dangerous to their health.

The abovementioned data account for only the key findings of the GUS study. One alarming tendency is that the campaign to combat workplace risks is made more difficult by the fact that new workplace risks seem to emerge to replace eliminated ones.

In this context, it is unclear whether the very small reduction in 2005 in the number of people working in a hazardous environment represents the beginning of a sustained improvement. This question will be the subject of future research.

Piotr Sula, Institute of Public Affairs (ISP)

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