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Two-year campaign for healthy workplaces holds conference finale
Nigel Rees is the European Research Officer and editor of the European Review based at the Trade Union Studies Centre at South Thames College, London. He recently travelled to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work in Bilbao to take part in a conference to mark the end of the 2012-13 campaign ‘Working together for risk prevention’.
Rees, N.

Every year the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) conducts a campaign focused on a particular problem of occupational health and safety. Starting out as ‘European Weeks’ in 2000 the programmes are now styled as ‘Healthy Workplaces Campaigns’ and last for two years instead of one. The theme for 2012-13 was ‘Working together for risk prevention’ and events included safety and health awareness training, conferences and workshops, poster, film and photo competitions or quizzes, suggestion schemes, advertising and press conferences. At the end of the campaign period in November the agency held a ‘summit’ in its Spanish home city of Bilbao.
The conference provided an opportunity to look back over the programme which was declared the best yet. It was supported by focal points in each EU Member State, hundreds of organisations, media partners and 87 official campaign partners. The event brought together around 300 delegates from across the EU, including occupational safety and health professionals, researchers, doctors, policy advisers, representatives of employers and trade unions, communications professionals and press.

ETUC view

Union speakers included Bernadette Ségol, General Secretary of the ETUC who enumerated both positive and negative recent developments in EU policy on workplace health and safety. Most of the positives involved the work of EU-OSHA itself. She praised the agency’s work on risk prevention particularly through the ESENER survey of managers and reps. whose results emphasise both the rôles of workers and legislation. She also approved the focus on gender in workplace safety and the challenging of stereotypes such as ‘light work’ that often denied women workers sufficient attention. Negatives seemed to revolve around the failings of the European Commission who, she said, had adopted a position that characterised health protection at work as a burden on business. For the first time in 35 years no general EU health and safety policy was currently in place. The social partner agreement in the hairdressing sector had been blocked from translation into an EU directive and no laws had been proposed on the commonest work health problem of musculo-skeletal disorders or carcinogens despite the fact that 65-100,000 people died from work exposure to these every year.

Hands-on experience

The conference included a series of workshops which dealt with good practice in management and worker participation, benchmarking, and campaigning and networking in the health and safety field. The first one allowed grass-roots experience of workplace projects to be showcased by award-winners from various countries. Leading the way was the West Offaly Dairy Discussion Group, an association of Irish farmers who added health and safety topics such as machinery, livestock and children and older farmers, to their regular chats. By accessing the farm safety web site of the Irish Health and Safety Authority they learned, not only that the agriculture sector was the most dangerous in the country, but that only three farms in their group had completed a legally required safety statement. Through mentoring and regular inspection the farmers improved both safety and I.T. standards until they had taken 226 corrective actions and spent €1,600 on equipment.  Now 11,000 Irish farmers are involved in discussion groups which include 7-10 year old children. Other featured projects ranged from a 6-person electronics firm from the Basque country with a 0% accident rate to a Turkish car plant that uses teamwork among its 6,000 workers, together with a Danish hospital where bullying and arguing in front of patients were two of the main concerns.

‘Healthy Workplaces Manage Stress’

Day two of the conference kicked off with an interesting lecture from Professor Trimpop of Jena University. He drew attention to the rising number of work-related accidents in driving, including commuting, as those typical of heavy industry declined. Stress-related illnesses were the other ‘growth area’ he said but although managers tended to work long hours they suffered less from these as they had control over their work patterns. In the professor’s opinion human beings needed risk so the aim should not be to eliminate it but to foster ‘risk competency’. On behalf of Employment Commissioner Andor, Armindo Silva attempted to rescue the reputation of the Commission claiming that ‘a very complex technical dossier’ was still under consideration as regards revision of the Carcinogens directive and that the social partner agreement in hairdressing could still be implemented despite ‘a negative opinion signed by 11 governments’. He insisted that for the European Commission ‘occupational health and safety is seen as a positive contribution to economic growth and competitiveness, and not as a burden on companies’. Finally the director of EU-OSHA, Christa Sedlatchek, wrapped up the conference and pointed the way forward to the next two-year campaign which will be under the slogan ‘Healthy Workplaces Manage Stress’.

 

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