Industrial accident rate rises for eighth year in a row

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According to figures published in early 2002, 2001 was another poor year for industrial accidents and occupational illnesses in Spain, with the industrial accident rate increasing for the eighth year in a row. Despite numerous efforts to create a genuine framework of preventive legislation , the number of people suffering health problems at work increases year after year. A recent report commissioned by the government attempts to explain the situation, on which the social partners take differing positions

According to figures issued by the Ministry of Labour in early 2002, between 1 January and 31 October 2001 there were 874,708 industrial accidents involving time off work in Spain, which represented a 3.9% increase over the same period in the previous year. This figure confirms the rising trend of industrial accidents in Spain since 1994 (ES0106147F and ES9904215F). Though these are absolute figures that are not adjusted for changes in the size of the active population, they represent an important indicator in comparison with 2000.

The Ministry of Labour's statistics show an increase in minor accidents (up 3.7%) and in serious accidents (up 4.7%) over the same period in 2000, though fatal accidents fell by 6.5%. Work-related road accidents (61,386 in the normal journey to and from work) represent 7% of all industrial accidents involving time off, and showed a 6.8% increase from 2000 to 2001, though the proportion of fatal work-related road accidents fell (down 3.4%).

In sectoral terms, there was a major increase in work-related accidents in the service sector (up 6.5%), and in construction (up 6.1%), whereas there was a decrease in agriculture (down 6.9%) and industry (down 0.5%). However, the number of serious accidents rose considerably in construction (up 8.8%) and in industry (up 6.1%), and the number of fatal accidents rose sharply in agriculture (up 12%).

The number of occupational illnesses declared and classified as such in the period January-October 2001 was 17,872, representing a 19% increase over the same period in 2000. However, due to an underestimation arising from the system of recording and classifying occupational illnesses, it is better to take these figures as simply a guideline to long-term trends.

The best indicators for assessing and comparing industrial accidents are those that relate accidents to the number of persons exposed to risk, such as the number of accidents per 100,000 workers. The figures on accidents in Spain during the last decade show that whereas between 1991 and 1993 the accident rate fell from 6,688 per 100,000 workers to 5,461, in 1994 it started to rise gradually, reaching 7,558 in 2000.

The Durán report

Concerned about the development of the industrial accident rate, the government commissioned a group of independent experts, coordinated by the president of the Economic and Social Council (Consejo Económico y Social), to carry out an exhaustive report on this issue. It was presented in 2001 and is known as the 'Durán report'. The report rejects the thesis that the sustained increase in industrial accidents is a result of economic growth or temporary employment, and rules out the possibility that a reduction in temporary employment would on its own be sufficient substantially to reduce the risk of industrial accidents. The report suggested the following as variables that have a clear effect on the increase in industrial accidents:

  1. the segmentation (polarisation by qualifications) of the labour market. The report proposes training measures to reduce this division;
  2. the concentration of risk in some activities. The report proposes selective strategies in certain areas to reduce this effect; and
  3. the segmentation of the business fabric between dominant and subordinate companies, the latter having little ability to improve their working conditions. To remedy this, the authors of the report recommend paying special attention to subcontracting and to the use of temporary employment agencies .

The report warns that the regulations on risk prevention are insufficient on their own to improve health and safety at work significantly. It therefore proposes actions aimed at disseminating and introducing a health and safety culture in companies, indicating that collective bargaining could play a major role both in clearing up confused aspects of the law and in adapting the regulations to the specific needs of companies.

The position of the social partners

The employers' organisations tend to argue in two main directions. They claim that it is very difficult to fulfil the 1995 Law on the Prevention of Occupational Risks (Ley de Prevención de Riesgos Laborales, LPRL, 31/1995), and call for programmes of incentives and allowances in order to meet its requirements. The employers also, according to some critics, tend to avoid their role as major actors in risk prevention and to pass responsibility onto the workers. They often claim that the workers have an inappropriate attitude towards risk, and that their lack of a health and safety culture reduces the effectiveness of investments in safety . However, companies that fulfil the LPRL sometimes complain of unfair competition from those which do not.

The main trade union positions on industrial accidents follow a different line, which varies little from one union to another. The main complaints are about precarious employment (ES0009106N), the lack of regulation on subcontracting (ES0004282F), the alleged fairly generalised failure of companies to meet the requirements of the LPRL, and the government's perceived reluctance to introduce a health and safety policy. They also call for greater control on certain actions in risk management taken by Mutual Insurance Associations for Industrial Accidents and Occupational Illnesses (Mutuas de Accidentes de Trabajo y Enfermedades Profesionales), which the unions consider to be tendentious.

Precarious employment is one of the points most highlighted by the trade unions, since, unlike the Durán report, they consider that there is a clear relationship between temporary employment and the likelihood of suffering an accident. They therefore consider that there is an urgent need for legislative measures aimed at regulating excessive flexibility of the labour market. On this point there are certain disagreements between the two majority trade unions. The Trade Union Confederation of Workers' Commissions (Comisiones Obreras, CC.OO) has tended to reach agreement with the government on its latest proposals for labour reform. The General Workers' Confederation (Unión General de Trabajadores, UGT) has taken a different line, and has even recently introduced a popular legislative initiative (a procedure that allows citizens to present proposals directly to parliament if they are endorsed by a certain number of signatures) on stability and safety in employment, which is partly aimed at improving industrial risk prevention (ES0110203N).

The trade unions also call for greater implementation of the LPRL by companies. Until recently it was accepted by the unions that a few years would be necessary to develop the regulations and for companies to adapt to them, but they believe that there should now be no excuse for companies to continue infringing the legislation. The unions thus call for the labour administration to act firmly in its work of monitoring, controlling and imposing penalties.


In order to interpret the current situation one must look at the framework of business and labour practices. The sustained increase in the industrial accident rate in Spain coincides with the development of the labour reform of 1994, which made the Spanish labour market far more flexible. The characteristics of the Spanish labour market in the last decade, such as the increase in precarious and temporary employment, the segmentation of employment and the decentralisation of production, have a clear influence on the conditions in which work is performed, and above all on the ability of workers to affect decision-making on this subject.

At present the Spanish regulations on health and safety are very complete in the abstract sense (at least in accordance with the theoretical assumptions on how health and safety should be managed), but in practice they do not tend to be respected. For example, the current regulations (the LPRL and the regulations arising from it) establish that it is the prime responsibility of employers to ensure safe working conditions and the integrity of the health of their employees. Thus, the responsibilities of the workers begin only once the employers have fulfilled their obligations.

The fourth national survey of working conditions, presented by the National Institute for Health and Hygiene at Work (Instituto Nacional de Salud e Higiene en el Trabajo, INSHT) in 2000, showed that only 30.2% of Spanish companies had carried out an initial assessment of risks, a key element for managing health and safety according to the model laid down by the LPRL. This means that approximately seven out of 10 companies had not yet decided to comply with the law. The same figures show that the companies breaching the law are mainly small firms, where the quality of the employment is lower, the organisation of workers is weaker, and trade unions are often absent. One might conclude that industrial risk prevention in the strict sense is currently carried out only in those companies in which there is a strong trade union representation that is able to exert sufficient pressure and has an infrastructure to support safety representatives in their role as health and safety monitors. In the remaining companies, risk prevention tends to receive little attention, and is at best limited to complying with certain bureaucratic procedures.

In a context such as this, in order for suitable health and safety measures to be introduced in the very many small and medium-sized enterprises in Spain, there must be stricter control by the Labour Inspectorate (Inspección de Trabajo), accompanied by government measures aimed at fostering the introduction of a new form of health and safety management in companies, and a greater effective participation of workers in its development. (Josep Espluga, QUIT-UAB).

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