Number of workplace accidents falls
Figures published in January 2005 indicate that the number of workplace accidents fell in Spain in 2004, apparently confirming a downward trend. However, the level of accidents is still the highest in the EU. Trade unions are calling for greater monitoring of the application of the legislation on risk prevention, whereas employers are concerned that their responsibilities are increasing, and are reluctant to accept that accident prevention depends exclusively on them. The government has announced new measures aimed at increasing controls on employers.
According to figures issued by the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (Ministerio de Trabajo y Asuntos Sociales) in January 2005, during the first 10 months of 2004 the total number of workplace accidents resulting in time off was 725,887, which represents a 3.9% fall compared with the same period in the previous year (ES0202213F). There was a fall in the service sector (-6.4%) and in construction (-5.1%). These data are consistent with a study from the Trade Union Confederation of Workers' Commissions (Comisiones Obreras, CC.OO) examining the whole of 2004, which indicates that the number of accidents fell by 3.2%.
The CC.OO study finds that the number of deaths at work fell to 946 in 2004, which was 8.4% fewer than in 2003, and this is the first year that there have been fewer than 1,000 deaths since 1996. The number of deaths at work fell for the second year running, suggesting a downward trend that roughly coincides with the decrease in the workplace accident rate. In 2002, the fatality rate in Spain was 9.8 workers per 100,000 occupied persons (the EU average was 4.9), whereas in 2004 it was estimated to be 7.7. The same trend has not applied to work-related travel accidents, which in 2004 resulted in 510 deaths, a 12.8% increase over 2003. However, 111 of these lost their lives in the terrorist attack in Madrid on 11 March 2004 (22% of the deaths due to work-related travel accidents). According to the authors of the CC.OO study, if this attack had not occurred, the number of work-related travel victims would have fallen by 11.7%.
The government considers the current downward tendency to be very positive, but also recognises that the figures are still far above the normal levels in Europe. In order to progress in this direction, the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs has announced several types of measures. First, there will be new regulations to improve monitoring of the application of the Law on the Prevention of Occupational Risks (Ley de Prevención de Riesgos Laborales, LPRL) (ES0202210F). Technical experts employed by the regions (autonomous communities) will be authorised to collaborate closely with labour inspectors, helping to ensure that employers meet their responsibilities. Furthermore, the government will draw up regulations aimed at improving the integration of accident prevention in the activities of companies, placing greater emphasis on the work of safety 'auditors', and regulating the activities of mutual insurance societies covering industrial accidents and occupational illnesses (Mutuas de Accidentes de Trabajo y Enfermedades Profesionales) with regard to their functions as outside accident-prevention services.
Furthermore, the state health and safety at work apparatus - particularly the structure of the National Institute for Safety and Hygiene at Work (Instituto Nacional de Seguridad e Higiene en el Trabajo) (an organisation that in the last eight years has lost 30% of its technical staff) - will be reinforced, and the coordination of the different authorities involved in health and safety will be improved. Furthermore, the Minister of Labour has announced the creation of a permanent observatory on working conditions and occupational risks.
Trade unions' position
The trade unions are cautiously optimistic about the industrial accident figures for 2004. Though they show a positive trend, the unions consider them to be unsatisfactory because they are still far from the EU average accident rate. They stress that in Spain the industrial accident rate is still almost double the EU average. They also claim that there is still a serious deficit in the organisation of health and safety activities in companies, and that the level of application of the LPRL is still too low, because there is no active policy by public administrations with regard to monitoring, control and penalties. They add that accident-prevention work is often of very low quality.
In accordance with this diagnosis, the unions ask the government to increase promotion of occupational risk prevention and to introduce measures aimed at improving the quality of accident prevention. They also call for an extension of trade union representation through regional and sectoral safety delegates, in order to guarantee that accident prevention reaches all companies. Furthermore, the trade unions believe that the existence of a high level of precariousness in employment - particularly due to the high temporary employment rate and subcontracting subject to little regulation - is a factor that clearly affects the accident rate (ES0306105F). Therefore, they consider that the measures aimed at reducing the industrial accident rate should start by improving employment conditions.
The Spanish Confederation of Employers' Organisations (Confederación Española de Organizaciones Empresariales, CEOE) issued a statement on January 2005 expressing its concern about the challenges of the legislation on occupational risk prevention for employers, particularly with regard to determining responsibilities. CEOE considers that the legislation has established an unconditional and practically unlimited duty of protection on employers, covering even lack of attention or carelessness by workers, so that employers have become the sole guarantors of health and safety performance. It considers this to be excessive and unfair, and calls for recognition of the role played in accident prevention by other parties involved in the labour relationship, ranging from workers to the accident prevention services. In CEOE's opinion, everyone should be responsible for their own infringements, and it therefore calls for a careful and precise delimitation of the obligations and responsibilities of each party.
CEOE also observes that the reforms of the LPRL tend to reinforce the penalties applied to employers, and introduce elements of legal uncertainty by placing the regional technical experts on the same level as labour inspectors for the purposes of imposing penalties. It also asks the public administrations to draw up more homogeneous criteria for action, since at present they often place overlapping, duplicated and even contradictory requirements on companies.
The employers state that a proof of their intention to collaborate in occupational risk prevention is their participation in social dialogue with the government and the most representative trade unions, in which they have renewed their commitment to reduce the number of industrial accidents (ES0301208F).
It seems clear that, after almost a decade of gradual increase, the workplace accident rate in Spain (ES0306105F) is falling, as has been confirmed by the figures for 2004. This news has been received with certain optimism in the world of work, though all the actors have some reservations because the accident figures are still too high. The application of the legislation on occupational risk prevention has improved (ES0301208F), above all since the application of the specific inspection programmes aimed at companies with more accidents. However, it is suspected that the level of infringement is still high. The experts agree in general that much of the accident-prevention work is more formal than real, because it is based on the fulfilment of bureaucratic obligations without clear repercussions in the workplace.
The trade unions consider that the measures to be taken are clear: greater control of employers by the Labour Inspectorate (Inspección de Trabajo) and greater penalties for infringement of the regulations. They feel that the introduction of regional or sectoral health and safety delegates would increase the monitoring of employers, because the Labour Inspectorate cannot reach all places.
The employers seem to feel threatened by these requirements, and therefore call for a redefinition of the framework of responsibilities established by the legislation. It should not be forgotten that this legislation is directly transposed from the EU framework health and safety Directive (89/391/EEC). However, one can understand the pressure to which many employers are subjected, above all in the context of decentralisation of production in Spain in the last few decades, which has generated a segmented market with strong companies in a dominant position and smaller companies that are subordinated to the former and therefore have little bargaining power. These subordinate companies are characterised by a low capacity for determining even their own work organisation, so they have little room to manoeuvre in designing occupational risk prevention. These companies are the ones that are most concerned about the reforms demanded by the trade unions and promoted by the government. Dealing with this situation would probably require intervention in a wider framework, by suitably regulating subcontracting situations. (Josep Espluga, Department of Sociology of the UAB)