Does OSH in Europe need an update because of new forms of work?

MM – 07/2019

In recent months, the value of occupational safety and health has been debated on several occasions in Brussels. This is not only a question of the additional gain in health protection for workers, but also of the economic consequences of more serious accidents or even fatalities.


Against this background, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) held a hearing on ‘The costs and benefits of investments in occupational safety and health (OSH)’, in which it prepared the EESC’s position as requested by the Finnish Presidency. The hearing involved various representatives of European institutions, trade unions and civil organisations.

The verdict was very clear that good occupational safety and health measures can prevent occupational accidents, diseases and extensive absenteeism. At the same time, investments in preventive measures can make small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) more successful and sustainable, as long as they are adequately supported in their implementation.

The rapporteur for the relevant EESC working group noted that, despite all the positive developments, Europe still has room for improvement. For example, stress is becoming more widespread in the world of work. In addition, around 100,000 people in Europe die each year from work-related cancer. Workers deserve better protection. In addition to traditional OSH measures, the most important preventive measures are providing training and information to employees.

OSH in rapidly changing working environments

The dramatic changes in the world of work caused by fast-moving technical and technological developments further accentuate work-related stress. Especially new forms of work such as platform work, which is supported by the use of various self-learning programmes, offer flexibility, but also great uncertainty for workers. This is because workers are often regarded as self-employed and therefore enjoy little or no protection from accident insurance.

A representative of the European Youth Forum pointed out that the pressure from employers and colleagues to ensure that young workers can be reached at all times was high. This burden is intensified by the fact that it is even more difficult for young people, who are used to spending a lot of time on their smartphones, to refuse such expectations; that is, to separate their professional and private lives and actually ‘switch off’. Therefore, there should be initiatives to help address this issue. In addition, it should be easier to have trade union organisation throughout Europe.

Mental health is important in the workplace

Stress factors in the workplace deserve a prominent place in risk assessments, not only with regard to negative psychological stress, but also the risks of an accident that come with it.


The representative from Mental Health Europe called for psychologically healthy workplaces with targeted risk assessments and training for both workers and managers in order to ensure an open and tolerant working atmosphere.

A trade union representative called for better working conditions and ambitious mental health targets as these have been neglected in occupational safety and health.


A representative from the Finnish Presidency explained the goal for the next six months – an economy of well-being in which economic and social growth combined with the well-being of EU citizens is one of the Presidency’s three priorities.

Concerns and wishes of the business community

A representative for SMEs stressed that policy regulations must also take into account the size of European companies and their ability to implement policy. 95% of these are SMEs, some of whom have considerable difficulties in implementing OSH regulations. It is particularly important to avoid any new bureaucratic monsters. SMEs are disproportionately burdened by bureaucratic regulations because they have to implement the same standards as large companies, but with considerably less ‘manpower’. Therefore, it is necessary to have assistance with implementation and cost-effective mechanisms tailored to their needs.

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) highlighted some positive developments. A best-practice example from Germany was presented, in which a small company introduced extensive, but uncomplicated health-promoting programmes such as back training courses for office workers, which significantly reduced the level of absenteeism.

Summary of the hearing

The participants concluded that the involvement of social partners in the evaluation and implementation of OSH measures was very beneficial due to their proximity to real-world practice. This also creates mutual trust and open dialogue.

Study on the economic costs of workplace accidents

As part of a series of scientific studies, EU-OSHA has published a study on the value of occupational safety and health and the societal costs of work-related accidents and occupational diseases.


The study attempts to assess the costs of work-related accidents, illnesses and deaths not only on the basis of the costs to the accident insurance provider, but also on the basis of the costs to society as a whole. This also includes follow-on costs, such as the effects on the economic productivity of relatives, bureaucratic costs for employers, reduced productivity of colleagues, etc.

The study compared five European countries – Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy and Poland – and used two different approaches, a bottom-up model and a top-down model. Countries with contribution-financed and tax-financed social security systems were used.


However, due to difficulties accessing data and comparing different datasets, there are considerable differences in the results. For this reason, the study should be read particularly thoroughly and commented on critically.