Occupational safety and health in the future: a mirror palace…

My first views and reaction to the recent Commission Communication on an EU Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work 2014-2020*

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Dear all,

God gave us 86400 seconds a day. Let me just use 10 of them to thank all people involved in the organization of this event and bringing us tot his magical and historical place.

You’ve asked for a first reaction. Here it comes.

The business community in general and BUSINESSEUROPE in particular have consistently stated that the main strategic objective of EU occupational safety and health policies should be the establishment of a level-playing field in OSH requirements across the EU. We are therefore pleased that this is reflected in the new EU Strategic Framework.

There are already 24 EU directives dealing with health and safety so the communication of the Commission is right to recognise that there is already a comprehensive body of existing EU OSH legislation. We therefore support the focus on better enforcement, compliance and simplification of existing legislation, in reverse order preferably, rather than proposing new regulation. That approach is likely to yield better results than proposing new regulations. There are indeed limits to what can be achieved through legislation!

We also agree on prioritizing non-legislative tools, to take into account the variety and complexity of situations on the ground, as Armindo Silva, director in European Commission’s Directorate General for Employment and Social Affairs correctly pointed out in his opening statements. Tools, let me assure, that can been equally binding or stringent than laws, only with different drivers than the rule of law.

We share the view that costs to companies should be taken into account when taking action in this area, whilst acknowledging that good safety and health performance helps business competitiveness.

We see a balanced approach regarding the need to reduce administrative burdens and compliance costs for SMEs, whilst maintaining a high level of compliance with OSH principles regardless of the size of the company.

It is also positive that the strategic framework focuses on the links between health and safety and longer working lives. It is indeed a very important aspect to deal with the on-going challenge of demographic change.

So, here are the first impression points of the employers’ jury: neutral to positive 6,5/10.

Having said that, there is another important question to answer. Will the communication, the new OSH policy framework really make a difference? Will it produce meaningful results? Does it have the necessary support, leverage, penetration power, impact potential? To answer those questions, allow me to use the image of a mirror palace or mirror maze.

When you enter the mirror palace you see an endless reflection of the same image. Take a look at the new OSH strategic framework and the EU action plans and strategies of the past and you will see a lot of returning images. EU OSHA Director Christa Sedlatscheck just said: “it’s better to repeat things that are good”. I doubt it applies in this case. The challenges, not just OSH but also the broader socio-economic challenges we are facing remain unchanged despite all the action programs of the past. I believe we are not doing the right things.

If you get to the next corridor in the mirror palace, you see a series of deformed images. That is also the impression I get when analysing the new strategic OSH framework communication. It fails to capture the correct image of reality, a reality that is much more complex and continuously and rapidly changing: singlification, feminization, urbanization, IT-trends, combining jobs, evolving job content, new form of employment relationships, micro scale manufacturing, etc. We have painted an image of a distant past, not one of a near future.

Back to our mirror palace. EU Commission, can you find your way out alone? Don’t you need some support? You can see your partners, governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations, experts, in the mirrors but they are not on your side to help. The mirrors make you think they are near. In reality they are in another chamber of the mirror maze.

I conclude and will do so by quoting from the rich Greek history, not a philosopher but an engineer, a scientist: Archimedes: “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” We lack the real lever to move the world of work to a better OSH performance level. But also the fulcrum is missing: the support to make a real difference. The former EU OSH campaign was about a partnership for prevention: leadership and participation, top-down meets bottom-up. There is no real high level support for OSH, not a EU level and in most cases also not at national level. There is no real partnership, no shared ownership over the new strategic framework. The relevant stakeholders were left out most of the stages of the process of developing the strategy. It will be hard to get them on board for the implementation stage.

So, being very close to Acropolis, temple of the gods, temple of Athena, maybe we need a divine intervention?

European Conference on Occupational Safety & Health – “OSH policy in the future” – 16-17 June Zappeion Hall, Athens

Kris De Meester

Federation of Enterprises in Belgium

Chairmen BUSINESSEUROPE OSH policy working group

*(COM2014 332 final) Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Council and the Committee of the Regions on an EU Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work 2014-2020.

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