Study examines workplace health, safety and working conditions

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In November 1999, the Institute for Health, Safety and Working Conditions (IYASE) presented the results of a study on developments in health, safety and working conditions in Greece over the past 20 years. It finds that there is a considerable shortage of data on workplace-level developments, and that - while there have been improvements, especially in larger firms - new legislation and institutions have not solved the problems.

On 26 November 1999, the results of the study on Health, safety and working conditions in Greece: developments during the last 20 years (1978-98) by the Institute for Health, Safety and Working Conditions (IYASE) were presented at a seminar.

The aim of the IYASE study, which began in June 1998 and ended in October 1999, was to make an initial assessment of the work carried out and changes made in Greece during the last 20 years in the field of health, safety and working conditions, particularly in comparison with the points noted and proposals made in a report by the International Labour Office to the Greek government in 1978. Compared with other issues examined in the study, such as the institutional framework, participatory procedures and functioning of public organisations and services, data regarding the situation at the workplace are limited. According to the IYASE research group, the analysis of the situation in the workplace is presented in the report with reservations, because it is not the result of on-site research but is based exclusively on the professional experience of its members and on recent relevant publications. However, in view of the significant lack of relevant studies in this field, the data emerging from this study are an important indication of what is happening in practice.

Accidents at work and occupational illnesses

According to the IYASE study, the development of occupational illnesses and accidents at work is an important indicator of the present situation regarding health and safety conditions at the workplace. The lack of relevant statistical data (GR9902115N) hinders integrated research in this direction.

As regards accidents at work, it is evident from the data available from the Social Insurance Foundation (IKA) that the number of accidents at work has decreased steadily (48,002 accidents in 1972, 38,836 in 1985, 25,063 in 1992 and 20,046 in 1997). This is also true for the number of accidents per 10,000 persons insured by the IKA. The same conclusion can be drawn from the analysis of data from IKA on the building and public works sector, which is considered to be one of the most dangerous with regard to workers' safety. However, the research group has serious reservations regarding the interpretation that should be made of the available statistical data and believes that any generalisation in this field would be risky and misleading, since, for the time being at least, it is not possible to take a more detailed approach to the problem. For example, it is noted that it is not possible to assess with precision the impact of economic recession, in the framework of international economic problems, the recent rise in unemployment in Greece and the trend towards de-industrialisation of certain sectors of economic activity, on the situation regarding workplace health and safety, and in particular the evolution of accidents at work. In addition, the complete lack of data, especially statistical, does not allow conclusions to be drawn with regard to the worrying situation regarding workplace health and safety and working conditions in small and medium-sized enterprises (SME s).

In respect of occupational illnesses, it is noted that the lack of available reliable data makes it impossible to draw detailed conclusions as far as another major health and safety problem is concerned, protection of health from the immediate work environment (eg noise and exposure to chemical substances). However, the data from the other countries of the EU, whose economies the Greek economy is tending to resemble, show on the one hand an upward trend in occupational illnesses and on the other a much higher cost arising from accidents at work.

The situation in large enterprises

The fact that the totality of legislation on workplace health and safety (GR9703107F) applies in large enterprises (those with over 150 workers) makes it possible to evaluate to a satisfactory degree the contribution of new institutions - such as safety officer s, works doctor s and workplace health and safety committee s - to improving working conditions, in terms of relevant objective criteria. Notwithstanding the reservation arising from lack of data on occupational illnesses and the under-performance of many institutions and mechanisms, the study refers to the conclusions of recent research on 200 enterprises, covering 32 sectors of production activity and employing 111,000 workers. According to this research, 66% of the enterprises in the sample had a workplace health and safety department, and 65% had elected a workplace health and safety committee, while all the enterprises stated that they understood the need for action to promote health. However, more priority was given to in-company activities related to issues referred to in legislation (eg chemical substances, lighting and noise) - with action reported in 62%-94% of companies - and less to issues not covered by legislation (eg efforts to combat stress, reported by 8%). It was the legislation that motivated enterprises to take action (84%), as well as other factors such as productivity (74%), staff problems (73%), company image (67%), and workers' health problems (57%). Despite the existence of many of the problems mentioned, the workplace health and safety departments operated efficiently, and the most important benefits reported from the new policies implemented in the area of workplace health and safety and working conditions are increased productivity (29%), fewer accidents (24%) and better working conditions (21%).

In general, according to the estimations of the IYASE research team, in many of the country's large enterprises serious efforts are being made to improve workplace health and safety, with certain visible results. However, some exceptions have been noted, particularly in the sectors in crisis (construction) or in enterprises that have not kept up with technological changes and have not been modernised, as well as in many cases in the public sector, where current legislation is often not enforced.

The situation in SMEs and the public sector

As regards SMEs, the IYASE study notes that there is practically a total lack of research data. However, in the cases where data is available, working conditions are reported to be bad, particularly in the regions and in the primary sector. In addition, it is not known whether the situation of workers in such enterprises has improved, remained the same or worsened over the past 20 years. According to the results of the study, the main reasons why the majority of SMEs find it difficult to adapt to the new legislation and new ways of thinking are: their traditional organisation; the mentality of their staff; the economic difficulties most of them face; the condition of most of their equipment and installations; and the low degree of familiarity with the provisions of the law.

With reference to the public sector, the study notes that, as was also shown by a recent Confederation of Public Servants (ADEDY) conference on this subject (GR9810194F), developments have up to now been limited. In very few cases has creation of health and safety committees been reported, and the number of technical officers and works doctors is also low. It is pointed out that signs that it may be possible to find a rapid solution to the problems of the public sector are not encouraging.

In-company institutions and infrastructure

According to the IYASE study, the practical functioning of technical officers, works doctors and health and safety committees - the main in-company institutions of workplace health and safety - has met with many serious difficulties, so that in the overwhelming majority of Greek companies, these institutions are nothing more than a formal obligation. The present situation regarding technical officers in enterprises and the vagueness surrounding their role help devalue the institution, it is stated. As regards works doctors, the situation is no better, particularly because of the severe lack of specialised doctors (only 30 in the whole country). The study stresses that the problems preventing the development of industrial medicine in Greece include the delay in specialisation of doctors, the lack of health infrastructure for industrial medicine, and in general the inability to modernise the content of industrial medical practice. Finally, the experience from implementation of the institution of workplace health and safety committees in Greek enterprises is said to be not satisfactory and the conclusions from the enforcement to date of the relevant legislation have been rather discouraging. There is no doubt that the difficulties hindering the development of workplace health and safety committees are due in large part to ignorance, lack of information and lack of the necessary technical training.

Commentary

The IYASE study makes it clear that the systematic study and documentation of the existing situation in workplace health and safety and working conditions in Greece must be a top priority for the authorities involved. The study itself, apart from its undeniable contribution in this direction, once again touches upon serious issues, mainly with regard to enforcement of the relevant legislation in practice (GR9801149F). The data that have emerged with regard to the situation of workplace health and safety and working conditions show a relative improvement, at least in large enterprises. However, they demonstrate once again that passage of relevant laws and introduction of new institutions are not enough to address the problems in practice. For that reason, the IYASE working group believes that, among other issues, top priority should be given to reinforcing the role of employers' and workers' organisations by developing collective bargaining on workplace health and safety and working conditions, promoting social dialogue among first- and second-level social partner organisations (eg confederations and federations) and providing education and information to employers and workers. (Eva Soumeli, INE/GSEE-ADEDY)

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