With the EU strategic framework on occupational safety and health expiring, the post-pandemic version should prioritise prevention and wellbeing.
The coronavirus crisis has taken a huge toll on the health and wellbeing of essential workers in particular. In so doing, it has demonstrated the inadequacy of conventional approaches to occupational safety and health (OSH). These are premised on the enforcement of compliance with national or European laws, while presuming the goodwill of employers to protect the health and safety of their employees.
In the post-pandemic scenario, it will be more important than ever to understand better the challenges of securing quality jobs and sustainable workplaces in the future.
The 1989 OSH directive (89/391/ECC) has been the cornerstone of the European Union legal framework for the past three decades, including general principles of prevention centred on employers’ duties to protect their workers’ health and safety. These principles are flexible and, so far, have managed to adapt to the evolution of work and new risks.
With the emergence and growth of alternative forms of work and employment, however, the framework has shown a fundamental limitation—its scope. Even if the directive applies to all, the fact that the rights and duties revolve around the existence of an employer excludes de facto the self-employed.
The outgoing EU OSH strategy for 2014-20 did not make explicit the health and safety protection of self-employed or freelance workers. This gap was surprising, considering that the International Labour Organization started raising awareness on the ‘dependent self-employed’ in 2003. The implications of the growing grey zone between the status of employee and that of the dependent or precarious self-employed go beyond the contractual, touching directly on health.
Not only are these workers usually excluded from most national social and welfare benefits but their precariousness deleteriously affects their health. Extending part of the OSH legal protection to the self-employed is politically achievable. The coming strategic framework is the opportunity to go a step further, by aiming to apply the protection of OSH legislation and policies to self-employed workers.
Contemporary OSH law faces new challenges relating to working conditions and organisation, whose social and individual aspects generate new occupational risks, including the psychosocial. The latter should be considered not as a discrete OSH issue but at the core of the employment relationship.
Historically, OSH law has only obliquely addressed psychosocial risks, via regulations on working time, holidays, rest periods and work-life balance. They must however be repositioned as key subjects of concern and treated as such by the new strategy.
The pandemic has had a scarring effect on employees’ mental health and wellbeing. Management of psychosocial risks has been one of its main shortcomings, as recognised by the United Nations, the World Health Organization and the ILO.
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The crisis will moreover disrupt the post-pandemic world of work. With workers increasingly exposed to risks associated with the novel use of technology—as in working remotely—and jobs becoming more emotionally demanding, a preventative stance on OSH should be intensified and enforced.
EU institutions must lead the way in promoting healthier workplaces, which contribute to richer societies as well as happier individuals. The new strategy should thus take a public-health approach, with the union and member states dedicating funds to OSH capacity-building, as a part of a plan to enhance individuals’ health and wellbeing, while still recognising the employer’s role and enforcing responsibility.
The Covid-19 crisis has clearly demonstrated that working conditions are changing more rapidly than regulatory frameworks. The old-fashioned approach of OSH legislation—focused on compensation and driven by cost-benefit analysis of policy interventions—has proved hopelessly reactive, when the safety and health of workers is more pressing than ever. In this new scenario, health and safety as a fundamental right must always come first, as part of a human-centred approach to decent work and workers’ welfare.
The pandemic is expected to have long-term effects on labour relations and working conditions, placing many workers at risk of erosion of their health and safety and so deterioration of their physical, mental, social, financial and digital wellbeing. Stronger European co-operation, through social dialogue and tripartism, must thus be firmly embedded in the new framework, giving the key players in EU decision-making a louder voice in promoting a minimum floor of OSH, while providing social justice and working conditions which respect the health, safety and dignity of all.
With the existing EU strategic framework imminently expiring, we have a unique opportunity to build back better—and use this crisis to do things differently by prioritising safer, healthier and more sustainable workplaces.
Iván Williams Jimenez is policy and advocacy manager at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health. Aude Cefaliello is a researcher in occupational health and safety at the European Trade Union Institute. Ana Cristina Ribeiro Costa is a guest lecturer at Universidade Católica Portuguesa and a lawyer and senior partner at Gama Lobo Xavier, Luis Teixeira e Melo e associados. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organisations to which they belong.