Belgium: EWCO Comparative analytical report on Information, consultation and participation of workers concerning health and safety in SMEs

  • Observatory: EurWORK
  • Topic:
  • Published on: 21 October 2010

Guy Van Gyes

Disclaimer: This information is made available as a service to the public but has not been edited or approved by the European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions. The content is the responsibility of the authors.

This national contribution summarises the available information on howsocial dialogue is involved in the OHS management of small enterprises in Belgium. A series of institutional arrangements, complemented with a range of national and sector mobilisation campaigns, exist to structure and promote this information and consultation of employees. Very little is however known about the impact and effect of these arrangements and campaigns.

Background information

The general issue

According to several studies (Walters, 2002, HSE, 2005), Health and Safety management shows significant differences between large companies and SMEs. In these latter, especially among micro-enterprises (less than 10 employees) and small ones (10-49 employees), H&S regulation is a lot of times perceived more as a burden to comply rather than a competitive opportunity because of stronger pressure over costs, company struggle for survival, lack of both financial and human resources. Further, in micro and small firms employers do not always own adequate OSH managerial skills and knowledge and they often see with suspicious the support offered by public agencies.

The extent of workers’ involvement is ambiguous: on the one hand could be easier because of direct relationship with ownership, while lower skills and shorter average tenure and the lack of OSH workplace representatives, due to legal threshold and/or non-unionization, make workers less involved in taking care of H&S on the other.

Regulatory Framework

The Health and Safety at work Framework Council Directive 89/391 introduces general prevention principles applicable to all occupational risks, aimed to ensure a higher degree of protection of workers at work through the implementation of preventive measures to guard against accidents at work and occupational diseases. The directive establishes the obligation on employers to adequately inform (art. 10) and to consult his/her employees and their representatives (art.11) by allowing them “to take part in discussions on all questions relating to safety and health at work”, thus including their right to make proposals and to a balanced participation. Finally, the directive sets an obligation on the employer to adequately train at his expenses his/her employees (art. 12) and their representatives, with regular repeals in order to take into account of technological and organizational changes and to the insurgence or changes of new risks.

The H&S at work strategy 2007-2013 stresses the importance of SMEs, high-risk sectors and subcontracting in achieving the target of a 25% cut of work accidents within 2013: in particular, SMEs are seen as more vulnerable since they have “fewer resources to put complex systems of protection in place, while some of them tend to be more affected by the negative impact of health and safety problems”.

The strategy envisages a simplification and adaptation of the existing legislation to SMEs and various forms of support in its implementation, such as dissemination of good practices, training of employees, development of simple risk assessment tools and guidelines, access to affordable and good quality prevention services, and economic incentives. Labour inspectors should play a twofold role both “as intermediaries to promote better compliance with the legislation in SMEs, primarily through education, persuasion and encouragement” and “when necessary, through coercive means”,

Member States are invited to “take steps to facilitate access to good quality prevention services” particularly in favour of SMEs, to improve health surveillance of workers while avoiding inflating the formal requirements, to incorporate into their national strategies specific measures (financial assistance, training tailored to individual needs, etc.). Further, Member States and the social partners are encouraged to promote “the practical, rapid implementation of the results of basic research by making simple preventive instruments available to enterprises and in particular to SMEs”.

The second programme of Community action in the field of health (2008–2013) and the 2008 "European Pact for Mental Health and Well-being" , together with framework agreements on work-related stress (2004) and violence, bullying and harassment at workplace (2007) show both an important shift from the original notion of H&S, as stated by the 1989 directive, towards a more general “well-being” approach, and the prominent role played by social dialogue in its advance.

Figures and trends

Eurostat figures over work accidents (2002-2006) show the highest incidence rates in medium companies (50-249 employees), while micro-entreprises (1-9 employees) show the highest rates over fatal accidents. These trends seem to depend on the impact of manufacturing, construction and transports, while in the other services industries trends are not so clear-cut. However, Eurostat figures by industry and company size are not complete in order to provide an adequate assessment over time. Further, new risks emerge and work-related diseases (WRDs) evolve from the so-called “hygienic” risk factors towards “psychosocial” ones reflecting changes in working conditions.

Similarly Eurofound 4th EWCS does not show a clear-cut relationship between work accidents, risks for health and work-related diseases with company size. When asked “Do you think your health or safety is at risk because of your work?” (question 32) and “Does your work affect your health, or not?” (question 33), respondents working in small companies (10-49 employees) report the lowest scores. However, the share of respondents not well informed on H&S (question 12) declines from 15.3% in companies with 2 to 9 employees to 11.2% in companies over 250 employees: on average, such a share tend to increase since 1995 (see the full descriptive report). Similarly, both training and involvement over organizational issues are positively correlated with company size and could display indirectly a positive effect on H&S. Composition effects with respect to age (small companies show younger population), and industry (wider proportion of SMEs in services) should be taken into account.


1. National settings and regulatory framework (max 400 words)

- How is the 1989 Framework directive on H / S and in particular information / consultation practically implemented in SMEs? Any data available? Do administrative reports exist in particular from the Labour Inspectorate?

No data exist on the implementation. No recent, representative, scientific and/or official survey exists in Belgium on how companies (and especially small companies) organise their occupational health and safety management.

In relation to this implementation, social partners have been criticising in a common advice, formulated by the National Labour Council (Nationale Arbeidsraad, CNT-NAR, advice 1683), the low degree of state control and the low oddse of being prosecuted in relation to violatins of health and safety regulations.

It is furthermore important to emphasize that the Belgian regulatory framework on occupational safety and health does not make a difference between enterprises in function of their size (with a sole exception: the presence of a H&S Committee, which is only mandatory in enterprises above 50 workers.

The Labour Inspectorate publishes an annual report, but no figures by company size are provided. Companies are obliged to send their yearly report on health and safety matters to the (regional) Labour Inspectorate. Only a small minority of minor enterprises comply with this rule.

- Does its implementation in micro and small companies follow similar patterns than in medium ones?

Belgian OHS-rules contain a range of 'exceptions' for smaller enterprises. However, they refer almost always to procedures, and not to the norms or standard itself. Two 'exceptions' are key:

  • In implementation of directive 89/391 of the EU, in 2001 a Royal Decree was issued in Belgium that regulates the information and consultation of employees in questions with regard to welfare at work if there is no Committee or union delegation (see infra point 2). The employer must then consult the employees directly. Furthermore he must amongst other things install a notice board and make a register available in which employees can discretely register their comments or recommendations. It is not clear to what degree these legal regulations are implemented in practice.

  • The Belgian approach to the prevention of work-related accidents and health problems is based on the analysis of risks and requires the obligatory presence of prevention advisors (internal services for prevention and protection at work), assisted by external experts, the external services for prevention and protection at work. In a company with less than 20 workers, the employer can excercise the function of prevention advisor him/herself. When the internal services can not fulfill all the tasks required by the OHS-law, the employer has to outsource these task obligations to an external service for prevention and protection at work. These services are certified by the Belgian Ministery of Labour. On the one hand they specialise in doing the job-related medical examinations, on the other hand they have experts available for risk assessments and setting-up prevention plans. For a micro-company, where the employer fulfills the role of prevention advisor, the law (implicitly) prescribes that he or she will be assisted by an external service. This is in practice very often the case. As already stated, no official survey exist on the OHS management of companies in Belgium. However, external prevention services acknowledge this fact.

- Is H&S the current focus of legislation or did it evolve by incorporating “well-being at work” as the basic concept?

Triggered by the need to comply with EU Directives, a (renewed) codification of the Belgian OHS-regulation took place in the mid-90s. A range of innovations were introduced. Consultations and negotiations between government, administration, experts, employers’ organisations and trade unions were the driving force of this renewal. A greater stress of prevention and a broadening of the OHS-concept to well-being at work were the biggest changes obtained.

The concept 'well-being at work' contains in the Belgian statutory context 7 elements:

  • Safety at work

  • Protecting employees' health at work

  • Psychosocial stress caused by work, including the protection of workers against violence, bullying and sexual harassment.

  • Ergonomics

  • Occupational hygiene

  • Improving the workplace

  • Measures taken to improve the work environment as regards their influence on items 1 to 6

A recent example of the social partners' focus on well-being at work: April 2009, the National Employment Council concluded its 100th collective agreement, requiring every company to have a preventive alcohol and drugs policy in place. The agreement seeks to create greater recognition of the issue and to encourage a preventive rather than punitive approach.

- The Community strategy health and safety at work for 2007-2012 calls upon the member states to work out and implement strategies to reduce the number of industrial accidents and occupational diseases; are the SMEs specially singled out in the national strategies and cooperation between social partners underlined / foreseen / called for?

The “National Strategy for Well-Being at Work 2008-2012” constitutes the Belgian initiative of this Community strategy and features as its key objective: to achieve an ongoing, sustainable and consistent reduction in accidents at work and occupational illnesses. The plan is structured in 5 programmes, with 12 main projects and several action statements per project

Although the program took only a slow start, Project 2 is about strengthening the prevention of accidents at work in particular in new at-risk sectors and SMEs. The following action points relate especially to SMEs and were planned:

  • Make means of assistance available to companies in at-risk sectors and to SMEs in order to prevent accidents at work.

  • Strengthen the monitoring of the effective application of regulations by the services for the monitoring of well-being at work in at-risk sectors in particular those of construction, health care, business support services and manufacturing companies.

  • Disseminate model job descriptions relating to the prevention of accidents at work for SMEs and the at-risk sectors.

  • Define and disseminate the attainment targets for learning in order to offer basic training for employers and prevention advisers among SMEs

The plan itself states: "The success of the National Strategy depends on the active participation of the interested parties and in particular of the social partners." The five programmes will be developed in consultation with the social partners and in particular the new prevention and monitoring measures regarding accidents at work with the aim of reducing the number of accidents in all sectors and also in SMEs.

The National Labour Council (CNT) published a positive, but also critical advise on the plan. Part of the criticism is related to SMEs and the role of the external services towards these small enterprises. The CNT-NAR advice nr. 1683 mentions as critical points: the frequent lack of well-developed health and safety services in SMEs; the non-cooperation with yearly company visits and risk analysis; the strong focus on medical issues; the lack of personnel in external services, … . However, these comments are general statements, and not related to the plans of Milquet. Furthermore, it is not clear how strong the incidence is of this problematic cases.

The Supreme Council for Prevention and Protection at Work (CSSPT) is also reserved an important role in the implementation of the plan. The Higher Council for Prevention and Protection at Work is composed of representatives of the social partners and experts. This council is the consultative channel for the social partners, when OHS-laws are revised or innovated.

2. The micro-level settings: the role of H&S representatives (max 700 words)

- From what level onwards / number of employees onwards, is it legally binding to establish an H&S Committee in the companies? What’s its role and function?

Employers are under a legal obligation to establish one or more such committees in enterprises normally employing an average of 50 workers. It is a bipartite body composed of representatives of the employer and of the employees. The employees' representatives are elected at the same time as the employees' representatives on the works council , following the same procedure and formalities, in the four-yearly elections known as "social elections ".

The rules concerning the employer's representatives differ somewhat from those applicable in the case of the works council.

The head (or an assistant) of the enterprise's internal service for prevention and protection at work (prevention advisor) is an ex officio member of the committee, as an independent expert. This person assumes the office of secretary. The employer's representatives must be chosen from among the managerial staff. In order to preserve their independence, industrial doctors may not act either as employer's representatives or as employees' representatives, but they attend the meetings of the committee in a consultative capacity.

The Committee has as a general role to contribute in active manner to the improvement of the well-being of employees at the workplace. It can formulate in this regards advices and can make propositions to gear the company policy to prevent accidents at work and occupational diseases as much as possible to the potential occupational risks at the workplace. It has also been assigned a range of information and consultation powers in relation to company environmental issues.

From what level onwards / number of employees onwards are risk prevention representatives elected? Are they distinct representatives from H&S Committee and work councils?

Risk prevention representatives do not exist in Belgium. Belgium adopted a system whereby the key health and safety tasks are done by a specific job position in the company: the prevention advisor or internal service for protection and prevention at work. These persons need a specific qualification and degree. They also have specified job protection rights in order to fulfill their job objective and neutral. As already stated, they are helped by external services.

In companies with no health and safety committee the HS consultative powers are assigned to the trade union delegation (when available). The functioning of these delegations is organised by a national agreement, which are further detailed by sector agreements. The thresholds for such a delegation range between 20 to 50 employees.

- Does the H&S Committee deal with individual health related complaints? Does it have the right to initiate action?

Assistance of individual employees in complaints is the prerogative of the trade union delegation. However, the committees have in relation to individual cases two important roles to play.

The Committee has to assign a limited delegation, which in case of a serious accident always has to make an investigation on the causes and how recurrence can be prevented;

This limited delegation also has to made on a yearly basis workpost visits to collect (individual) problems

In other words: the main role to be played has to do with the 'collectivisation' of an emerged individual problem. Personnel, individual problems are as a general rule not a point of discussion at the meetings of a health and safety committee (cf. 'names' are normally not mentioned). The Committee members have however a 'signaling' function.

- Do regional/territorial risk prevention representatives exist, covering several small SME’s?

No, however some regional bodies exist.

1. The High Council for Protection and Prevention at Work is complemented with structures at the provincial level. These Provincial Committees for the Improvement of Work have been installed by Royal Decree of 1970. Members are the social partners and experts (labour inspectorate, education and others). The tasks of these committees are:

  • Sensibilisation of the socio-economic actors;

  • Informing employers, employees and other specialised target groups;

  • Organisation of campaigns, trainings and workshops.

2. As already stated, part of the OHS management is outsourced in Belgium to external services. Individual employees also have the right to consult these services (which is however not a common practice).

3. In a range of sectors the regional/local officers (full-time paid), the so-called union secretaries, have a visiting right to companies (including SMEs where the union doesn't have a representation at the workpalce). This visiting right includes also OSH matters. Such a sectoral agreement exist for example in the SME-sector of car repair workshops.

4. Experiments exist in retail and food industry with regional union representatives that cover several SMEs. Besides limited success, these bodies are also most of the time only involved in matters of labour conditions (wages, working time, dismissal, …).

- Is there special H&S training foreseen for OSH representatives/committees? Is it adequate in order to cope with both emerging risks and legislative and technological changes in SMEs?

Yes (see also the choice in Belgium to develop a major part of OSH management by specialised, qualified job positions and occupations. These prevention advisors are also united at the regional/national level by associations (PREBES)).

- In order to carry out prevention policies, does a right exist for the H&S Committee to carry out surveys, call in outside independent experts? Who finances the costs of the operations / expertise? Does this right exist also in SMEs?

Members of the committee can request the presence of experts (very often union-related experts). After agreement, the employer pays for these expert consultations. Often these experts belong to the external service of prevention and protection. For example: when the new legislation on mobbing at work was implemented in 2002, the work psychologists of these external services were in many committees invited to give an insights in these new rules and how to act in compliance with these rules.

No statistics exist on how often H&S Committees make these kind of requests, nor on the agreement of the employer with these requests.

- Does the H&S Committee have the right to consult the Labour Inspectorate?

Yes, also employees have this unrestricted right. In general, the Labour Inspectorate will handle these complaints confidentially.

- Does regular reporting, annual reports exist which describe enterprises occupational diseases, assess the occupational risks at the workplace and present prevention policies? Are they submitted to the H&S Committee for discussion before publication?

Internal and external services for prevention and protection ant work have to present on a yearly basis a report to the Committee. Based on these reports a yearly plan is set-up in consultation with the Committee. These reports are not public, although companies are obliged to send these reports to the (regional) Inspectorate.

- Is the H&S Committee, when providing a high standard of working conditions and of occupational health and safety seen as a positive competition factor? Can the image of the companies be regarded as important in the context for winning major contracts? Do companies refer to the activities of the H&S Committee in their Annual report of activities, to the existence of day-to-day bargaining and the management of working conditions by the H&S Committee? Do and how differ the approaches between micro/small, medium and large companies?

These are of course very difficult questions to answer in a 'balanced' way. The following 'impressionistic' remarks can be made:

  • Small enterprises will on average not report on the activities of the H&S committee (when they have one) in their annual reports (as they have one) as these annual reports are most of the time limited to only business accounting information. Exceptions on this rule would be the very few small organisations, involved in projects of social auditing.

  • Health and safety management culture is on average embedded in a context of statutory norms and standards. Rule-adoption or following (or not) is as a consequence often the managerial approach. In general, it seems better to reformulate the argument 'high OHS standards as competitive factor' in a Belgian context. Most of the companies would be terrified to get a 'bad' image (for example by getting in the (local) news with a terrible work accident), as they would obviously fear to loos customer support as a result of this bad image. In other words: the reformulated argument would be 'preventing to have a bad image as a competitive disadvantage'.

  • A range of all sorts of campaigns are developed in Belguim to develop OHS-management and to improve well-being at work. A series of these activities are created within a quality management approach (see point 5): certified quality systems or quality awards. These TQM tools are of course used by companies to present them at the market.

3. Social partners and the role of collective bargaining (max 300 words)

Please summarize specific arrangements on H&S for SMEs and SME-dominated industries, and how territorial OSH representatives could intervene at workplace.

Most of these specific arrangements are already mentioned:

  • Possibility of employer to be 'prevention advisor' (see point 1)

  • Role of external services (see point 1)

  • Forms of territorial social dialogue on OHS (see point 2)

Point 5 mentions additional existing arrangements at sector level, which can also be detected in SME-sector like construction, clothing, … .

What is the role of Social partners in drawing guidelines and implementing H&S and work organization intervention aimed to prevent work accidents and WRDs? What is the role of labour inspectorates, social security institutions, OSH services and national agencies in promoting local-level experiences in SMEs? Please summarize, if there exist, the extent of the cooperation between these latter and social partners.

National and sectoral social dialogue has made in Belgium important contributions to the improvement of working conditions. On the one hand, this national and sectoral social dialogue plays an important and positive role in the preparation of new OHS-law in Belgium. This law is still the main regulative instrument of working conditions in Belgium. On the other hand, this national and sector social dialogue plays a complementary role to existing legal regulations. Bi-partite negotiated agreements exist on a range of OHS-matters. Specific sectoral bodies are involved in campaigning for better working conditions and coaching companies to obtain better working conditions results and comply to a higher degree with the existing rules and regulations.

From a social dialogue perspective, two national bodies play a key role. The Higher Council for Prevention and Protection at Work is composed of representatives of the social partners and experts. This council is the consultative channel for the social partners, when OHS-laws are revised or innovated. The National Labour Council is the other important body. The highest members of both sides – trade union and employers’ confederations – are present in this body. In this Council, national intersectoral collective agreements are negotiated for the whole private economy. Dozens of regulations about OHS are based on consensus-advices in the Higher Council for Prevention and Protection at Work or negotiations in the National Labour Council.

Important: SMEs are in these bodies not only represented by a general employers' federation (VBO-FEB), but also by specific SME confederations (UNIZO, UCM).

As already stated external services for prevention and protection at work have a statutory recognised role in the OHS management of small enterprises. A range of these services have links with employers' organisations.

Collaboration between the departments of the Federal Ministiry of work and the social partners have campaign-wise being intensified in recent years. An example is the project Pro-Safe.

The Pro-Safe campaign was launched in order to raise OSH awareness within small and medium sized enterprises and to convince SMEs to improve the health and safety protection of their employees. Beyond this, the campaign mobilised the development of a prevention policy based on risk analysis. The second objective of the Pro-Safe campaign was to create a platform that brings together intermediaries, content providers and other partners in order to set up joint initiatives for SMEs.

The campaign brought together employers’ organisations and the Belgian Ministry for Employment, Labour and Social Dialogue, and was co-ordinated by Prevent, the Belgian OSH institute. The campaign focused on three complementary approaches:

  • Awareness-raising by introducing an award scheme;

  • A press campaign on the campaign in general and on specific topics;

  • A number of information sessions for SMEs.

4. Figures, quantitative and qualitative studies. (max 800 words)

Are there specific surveys which prove that standards of working conditions, health and safety within small enterprises as compared to larger ones are significant lagging behind?

The general picture seems that small enterprises score worse on physical working conditions and better on psychosocial working conditions.

Belgium has no national survey on working conditions. In the Flemish Workability Monitor (2004 and 2007) differences by size of workplace are in a multivariate analysis detected for learning opportunities and combination work-family life. Control variables in the analysis are age, gender, occupational status, contract type and household situation. Learning opportunities are more problematic in medium-sized enterprise (50 to 99 employees). Combining working life and family is less problematic for employees working in big companies (above 500 employees). No differences by establishment size are established in the statistical analysis for well-being at work or psychological fatigue.

In general, experts acknowledge that the rate of accidents is higher in small enterprises. A debate - also between the SME employers organisations and trade unions - exist on the causes of this higher rate: deficiencies in the OHS management of these companies?; lower rule-compliance?; or structural characteristics like the higher presence of small enterprises in accident-sensitive sectors like construction.

Do these surveys also investigate the impact of training, information and consultation over working conditions also in SMEs?

No (fragmented research exist on the degree of training and information, not the impact).

When surveys lack, are there qualitative studies investigating the impact of involvement and training on working conditions and health in SMEs?


Develop on the findings / results. Please mention / enumerate / give links.

5. Good practices for SMEs: company/territorial level (max 200 words)

Are there well known examples for specific collective agreements in a given sector covering working conditions, H&S in particular in SME’s which go far beyond legislation? Are they exceptions or the rule? Please report at least one example at national level and at least two at territorial/company level.

Health and safety issues are only rarely an issue of a company collective agreement. These problems are dealt with through the yearly cyclus of plans and reports in the health and safety committees. However, a range of national and sector agreeements exist which cover different aspects of OHS management: i

  • Additional sector insurance premiums for people with an occupational disease or disability as a results of a work accident;

  • Additional rules on training of trade union representatives (belonging to the health and safety committee or the trade union delegation);

  • Installment of sector experts, which have to investigate work load (existing in the textile industry and in the harbour sector);

  • Creation of sector working groups that have to help the operationalisation of company campaigns on OHS issues (recently very often related to stress policies).

A well-known example of a national sector initiative:

National action committee for Health and Safety in the construction sector (Nationaal Actiecomité voor Veiligheid en Hygiëne in het Bouwbedrijf/Comité National d'Action pour la Sécurité et l'Hygiène dans la Construction, NAVB/CNAC): It has been set-up in 1965 by the social partners of the construction sector. The main activities are sensibilisation, training and coaching on OHS-matters in the sector. It has also a research and development task in the OHS-field. In this regard, it plays an advisory role to advice the joint sector committee and other bodies (state administrations) on OHS trends and developments in the sector. Current prevention campaigns of the NAVB/CNAC have to do with work accidents at road construction activities and lower-backache problems.

Good practices of OHS-management in small Belgian enterprises can be found at the website: It contains a list of the recent award winners. However, the instrument of collective agreement plays no role in the award winning practices of these companies.


Thanks to Jan Van Petegem (IDEWE & HIVA-K.U.Leuven)-for his comments.

  • HSE (2005), Obstacles preventing worker involvement in health and safety. Research Report 296.

  • Walters D. (2002), Regulating health and safety in small enterprises. PIE, Peter Lang, Brussels

Guy Van Gyes, HIVA-K.U.Leuven

[1] Question 28a_1 “Have you undergone: Training paid for or provided by your employer, or by yourself if you are self-employed?”; Question 28a_2: “Training paid for or provided by your employer, or by yourself if you are self-employed - number of days”; question 28b_1. “Have you undergone: Training paid for by yourself?”; question 28b_2. “Training paid for by yourself - number of days”; question 28c: “Have you undergone: On-the-job training?”; question 28d. “Have you undergone: Other forms of on-site training and learning?”

[2] Question 30b: “Over the past 12 months have you been consulted about changes in the organisation of work and / or your working conditions?”; question 30d. “Over the past 12 months have you discussed work-related problems with your boss?”

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