Union proposals to enforce health and safety legislation at the workplace

Download article in original language : GR9801149FEL.DOC

Prompted by the fatal accident that took place on 3 January 1998 in a paper mill in Thrace, the Greek General Confederation of Labour (GSEE) has proposed a series of measures to deal with the problem of industrial accidents. The accident once again brought to the fore the question of health and safety at the workplace, highlighting the nationwide problem of non-implementation of the proper measures. The GSEE attributes industrial accidents to reductions in production costs which have a negative impact on safety conditions.

Recent data show that industrial accidents continue to be one of the most serious problems affecting working conditions in Greece. According to the official statistics, one person dies in an industrial accident every three days, and an industrial accident occurs every 14 minutes, causing injury and disablement to many workers. The resultant costs are particularly high for the economy and the insurance systems: in 1991 alone, industrial accidents cost the Social Insurance Foundation (IKA) GDR 28 billion, not including medical care and hospitalisation expenses; by 1993 the figure had risen to GDR 50 billion.

Although under the terms of Law 1568/1985 and Presidential Decree (PD) 17/1996 (GR9703107F) Greece has a powerful legislative framework for health and safety at work, which is fully harmonised with current EU legislation, the problem is that with very few exceptions it is simply not implemented in practice.

Causes of the problem

The issue of industrial accidents has been brought into sharp focus by a fatal accident that took place on 3 January 1998 in a paper mill in Xanthi, Thrace. In its statement on the accident, the Greek General Confederation of Labour (GSEE) claimed that the employer had not taken the necessary preventative measures: "the steam boiler that exploded had been installed on the shop floor, whereas it should have been at a distance of at least 200 metres from it. In addition, the employer has imposed regulations forbidding workers from exercising their trade union rights and preventing the functioning of a trade union or a workplace health and safety committee in the factory."

The GSEE also holds the state responsible, "because Labour Inspectorates do not function properly, and in Xanthi there is no technical inspector to carry out inspections." Finally the GSEE declares that it will proceed, together with the local Labour Centre, to take legal and trade union action, with a view to uncovering the real causes of the accident and punishing those responsible.

On the wider issue, the president of the GSEE believes that many factors have led to the present situation in which non-implementation of legislation on health and safety in the workplace prevails. The first is that for the past few years the Prefectures have been responsible for carrying out inspections, resulting on the one hand in a lack of central planning and on the other, claims GSEE, in acquaintances and commitments that develop at the local level and prevent proper inspections from being carried out. For their part, enterprises allegedly resort to any and all means to achieve the greatest possible profit and avoid making investments to improve working conditions, thus denying themselves the long-term benefits such investments would bring them. The GSEE also blames workers themselves, because, when threatened with dismissal, they have in many cases not tried to enforce implementation of the legislation but have instead gone on strike exclusively for financial demands and not for vital labour issues such as protection of their health.

Measures for dealing with the problem

Prompted by the accident in January 1998, the GSEE has proposed a series of measures which in its opinion will put pressure on employers to implement existing legislation. Specifically, it proposes:

  • the creation in all workplaces, on the responsibility of the trade unions, of the health and safety committees required by law; and
  • the creation by the state of adequate inspection mechanisms and the imposition of sanctions on employers who do not comply with their obligations.

To deal effectively with the danger of accidents and occupational diseases, a department for prevention of occupational hazards should be set up under the framework of the health services provided by insurance systems. Every employer should be obliged to pay an occupational hazard contribution for every worker. The amount of this contribution would be determined both on the basis of the degree of risk in the sector to which the enterprise belongs and on the basis of the risk indicators for the specific enterprise - such as the number of accidents per year, the number of cases of occupational diseases per year, and the results of measurements of hazardous substances to determine whether defined concentrations and emissions in a given enterprise have been exceeded, in accordance with the provisions of the relevant legislation.

This premium should be adjusted annually on the basis of the above data. In this way the employers would be forced to take measures to improve working conditions, since if they did not they would continue to spend the same, if not much more, on insurance coverage. This would secure the resources necessary to provide adequate compensation for workers who fall victim to industrial accidents or occupational diseases, at least to the level of their wages at the time they had the accident or contracted the disease. The GSEE has also recommended the introduction of a personal occupational hazard logbook, in which the results of periodic medical examinations would be recorded.

Commentary

The recent accident has highlighted the principal elements of the problem in Greece:

  • inadequate state inspections and the inability of the state to impose sanctions in cases where the legislation is not implemented;
  • employers' refusal to implement the legislation; and
  • ineffective interventions by the trade unions and workers, who usually limit themselves to belated protests and fail to demand their rights.

These factors are amongst the characteristics of the period of adjustment of the Greek economy to the demands of international competition. First, the competitive pressure brought to bear on Greek enterprises is forcing them to economise to the maximum, so as to achieve large reductions in production costs. The results include less spending on health and safety. Second, the restructuring processes which began in the mid-1980s under pressure from international competition have weakened all forms of workers' collective organisation and expression. This allows the employers' side to refuse to implement existing legislation, and also restricts worker and trade union interventions to purely financial issues. Still, it is worth noting that infringements of the legislation on health and safety are a type of "social dumping" with respect to other EU countries, which results in protests from other Member States as well as from the European Commission. The Commissioner responsible for social affairs and employment, Pádraig Flynn, has made it clear that enterprises that fail to implement the legislation will be taken to the European Court of Justice. (Evangelia Soumeli, INE/GSEE)

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