Remarks by Commissioner Schmit on the new occupational safety and health strategy in a changing world of work

(Source: European Commission)

“Check against delivery”

Thank you very much, Valdis, good afternoon everyone,

Health and safety at work is a big responsibility, for employers, for workers, and for public authorities. Since the beginning of the European Economic Community it has been one of the basic elements of social policy. First to protect the workers, but also to create common standards.

So there is a need to constantly adapt our standards in health and safety because technology changes and our knowledge about different substances is also increasing.

This framework is based on Principle 10 of the European Pillar of Social Rights which states that “Workers have the right to a high level of protection of their health and safety at work”. So this features in our Pillar of Social Rights Action Plan.

The Covid-19 pandemic has shown how crucial health and safety at work is for protecting workers’ health, for the functioning of our society, and for the continuity of critical economic and social activities.

Therefore, the road to recovery of our economies must also include a renewed commitment to keep occupational safety and health at the forefront.

The importance of occupational health and safety was stressed in both the Porto Declaration signed by EU leaders and the Porto Social Commitment signed by the EU institutions, social partners, and civil society.

And at the G20 ministerial on employment and labour I attended last week, it was clear that this has become an international issue. Everybody is aware that health and safety has also an economic dimension: the cost of accidents and occupational diseases represent around 3.3% of EU GDP.

In the last 30 years we have seen significant progress in occupational safety and health in Europe. For example when it comes to accidents, between 1994 and 2018, fatal accidents at work in the EU decreased by about 70%.

However, despite this progress, there were still more than 3,300 fatal accidents in the EU in 2018. So there is more work to be done and this is exactly what we are doing today.

The new occupational safety and health strategic framework has three main objectives:

  1. Anticipating and managing change in the new world of work, particularly thinking about the impact of the digital, green and demographic transitions;
  2. Improving prevention of work-related accidents and illnesses; and
  3. Increasing preparedness for any potential future health crises.

Let me give a few examples of the actions we are going to take under each of the strands mentioned.

Firstly, our ways of working are changing. With increased digitalisation, and more and more of the population working remotely, we require new and updated solutions. To that end, we will modernise the Workplaces Directive and the Display Screen Equipment Directive and continue the important work started on the ergonomic risks. 

However, it is not just workers’ physical well-being we have to protect, we must also look after their mental health that has been severely affected by the pandemic. 

Even before the pandemic, mental health problems affected around 84 million people in the EU. Half of EU workers consider stress to be common in their workplace, and stress contributes to around half of all lost working days. Nearly 80% of managers are concerned about work-related stress. This is an issue that we – and social partners – need to do something about.

As it says in the strategic framework, we will ensure appropriate follow up to the European Parliament resolution on the Right to Disconnect as this is one of the issues linked to mental health problems.

So the Commission will prepare an EU-level initiative by the end of next year related to mental health at work. It will assess emerging issues and put forward guidance for action.

As implementation begins on several initiatives under the European Green Deal, we also want to make sure occupational safety and health is up to date with the green transition.

The current limit values of certain hazardous substances need to be reviewed.  To that end, we will focus on lead and cobalt, two hazardous substances frequently used in renewable energy technologies and in battery production, as well as on asbestos. Exposure to asbestos may indeed become a health-risk factor in the renovation wave so we need to remain ahead of the game to prevent ill-health.

Under the prevention strand of the framework, we will promote a ‘vision zero’ approach to eliminate work-related deaths. Even one death at work is one too many. Recent terrible events in Antwerp go to show that we need to redouble our efforts.

The Commission will also update EU rules on hazardous chemicals to combat cancer, as well as reproductive and respiratory diseases.

Cancer is the leading cause of work-related deaths in the EU accounting for 52% of them, which means 100,000 occupational deaths every year. These fatalities can be reduced and avoided.

This needs decisive action to eliminate these deaths. Prevention is the key approach. This policy links to the EU’s Beating Cancer Plan.

And under preparedness, we will draw lessons from the current pandemic and see what we can do better in future such crises.

The Commission will develop emergency procedures and guidance for the rapid deployment of measures in the future, in close cooperation with public-health actors.

It is also important to support workers who have been infected by Covid-19, and the families who have lost loved ones because of exposure to the virus at work. To that end, we will update the Commission recommendation on occupational diseases by 2022 to include COVID-19.

It is now for Member States to update their national occupational safety and health plans in line with our new framework, in cooperation with the social partners, and make sure that the rules are properly enforced. A lot depends on good enforcement which means also adequate control mechanisms.

Like this, we will fulfil the promise of Principle 19 of the Pillar. I think that health and safety is a very important part of an economy that works for people.

Thank you.

Privacy Preferences
When you visit our website, it may store information through your browser from specific services, usually in form of cookies. Here you can change your privacy preferences. Please note that blocking some types of cookies may impact your experience on our website and the services we offer.