Germany: Number of occupational accidents at all-time low

The number of occupational and commuting accidents in Germany has declined in the last decade, as has the number of recognised cases of occupational disease. Despite these positive developments, the social partners continue to debate how employees’ health and safety at the workplace can be best supported.

Latest indicators on health and safety

In December 2015, the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA) presented its latest annual report on health and safety at the workplace. Most indicators have developed positively over the last decade, with the number of occupational accidents continuing to decline – from 1,088,672 accidents in 2004, to 955,919 in 2014 (which represents 24 accidents per 1,000 full-time employees). The number of commuting and fatal occupational accidents has also decreased in the last 10 years.

Table 1: Decline in occupational accidents and recognised occupational diseases (2004–2014)

 

2014

2004

Employed persons

39.94 million

38.44 million

Occupational accidents

955,919

1.09 million 

  • Fatal occupational accidents

639

949

Commuting accidents

176,443

190,876

  • Fatal commuting accidents

332

575

Notifications of suspected occupational disease

75,102

63,812

Recognised occupational diseases

16,969

17,413

  • New cases of disability retirement due to an occupational disease

5,277

5,217

Cases of sick leave per 100 members of the statutory health insurance

122.5

130.1

Average days not worked due to sickness leave

12.2

12.1

Spending by the statutory accident insurers (in €)

13.98 million

12.53 million

As shown in Table 1, although the number of recognised cases of occupational disease has declined over the last 10 years, the number of notified cases of suspected occupational diseases has grown. As the latest BAuA report highlights, this increase may be at least partly attributable to an increase in the number of conditions recognised as occupational diseases. The list of recognised occupational diseases was extended in 2014, with new rules taking effect in 2015.

Financial costs of sickness

Nonetheless, the statutory health, pension and accident insurers still incur high costs in terms of sickness leave and disability pensions. In 2014, says the annual report, the statutory accident insurers spent nearly €14 million on these items. Moreover, some 1.5 million workers were unable to work due to sickness in 2014. While the average number of cases of sick leave fell from 130.1 for every 100 statutory health insurance members in 2004, to 122.5 cases in 2014, the average number of days not worked was stable at around 12. BAuA estimates that, in 2014, around 543 million workdays were lost due to sickness. This represents a loss in gross value added of €90 billion. The most important causes of these work absences were muscular and skeletal disorders (126 million days), mental health problems (79 million days) and respiratory illnesses (66 million days).

Work-related stress

The 2014 BAuA report also includes figures on work-related stress and its potential health implications. In a 2012 employee survey, produced by BAuA and the Federal Institute for Vocational Education and Training (BIBB), some 28% of respondents who reported often working at the very limit of their abilities also felt that they suffered poor health. This compares with only 12% and 10% of respondents who, respectively, only sometimes or rarely worked to their limit. While the report itself does not explain these phenomena, new data on psychological work strains published in late 2015 provide a better insight into the second most important reason for days not worked in 2014.

Social partner activities and views

Employer initiatives to boost healthy workplaces

As the German Confederation of Employers’ Associations (BDA) notes, employers spent around €4.5 billion in 2013 to support occupational health and safety at the workplace (PDF) and prevention activities. This was 41% of the total amount spent in Germany on this area. In comparison, in 2013, private households spent €4 billion on prevention and health activities and the federal state spent €2.1 billion. This makes employers the biggest spenders, with their financial contributions having risen by 46% since 2000. Many employers provide activities such as back exercises, relaxation courses, health weeks, and training for managers on issues of occupational health and safety (OHS). However, the BDA stresses that these activities are limited to the workplace, and that employees’ health also depends on their own lifestyles. Therefore, any health-related activities sponsored by the employer at the workplace needs to balance costs and benefits. Employers would only continue to engage in preventive activities when this improved employees’ health. Proof of such a relationship, however, is scant. The BDA highlights that workplace health promotion could be improved by better cooperation of all relevant actors (including health insurers), the development of tools to measure impact, and greater support for small and medium-sized companies.

Trade union perspective – the role of the workplace

The German Metalworkers’ Union (IG Metall) welcomes the fact that employers have become more active in health place promotion (PDF). However, the union stresses that many measures offered by businesses are focused on changing employees’ behaviour, such as courses or workshops on healthy eating, or exercise. However, IG Metall argues that the reasons for health problems are more often related to employees’ working conditions, arguing that physical and psychological strain, noise and hazardous substances are often responsible for OHS problems. Employess cannot easily influence such aspects of their working conditions. Therefore, the union calls for the better implementation of health management systems at establishment level in order to improve working conditions and apply OHS laws.

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