KANBrief 3/21

Change, prevention and preparedness

The new EU Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work 2021-2027 is intended to help address risks to workers associated with the digital and green transitions.

The number of fatal occupational accidents in the EU decreased by 70 % between 1994 and 2018. Despite this progress, over 3,300 fatal and 3.1 million non-fatal occupational accidents still occurred in the EU in 2018. 200,000 workers also die each year from work-related diseases.

The European Commission drew attention to these figures, which give pause for thought, on 28 June 2021 at its presentation of the new Strategic Framework on Health and Safety at Work 2021-2027. The aim of the framework is to mobilize the EU institutions, Member States and social partners to implement common priorities in occupational safety and health.

Three broad objectives: change, prevention and preparedness

The new strategy’s main theme is the “green, digital and demographic transition” of the world of work. The strategy is to ensure that the “green transition”, i.e. the EU’s preparations for a carbon-neutral future, is not achieved at the expense of workers’ health. The EU’s planned renovation wave under the European Green Deal is intended to make Europe’s buildings more energy-efficient. At the same time however, it will undoubtedly increase construction workers’ exposure to asbestos. For this reason, the Commission makes provision for reduced limit values in the Asbestos Directive for 2022. Existing limit values are also to be reviewed and amended (as in the case of lead) or new values established (as in the case of cobalt); these substances are used in technologies for the generation of renewable energy and in lithium batteries. For this purpose, the Chemical Agents Directive is to be amended in 2022 and the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive in 2024.

With respect to the progressive digitalization of work and the risks presented by it, the framework document also draws attention to the Commission’s proposals for a regulation governing machinery products and another regulation governing artificial intelligence. Above all however, it places particular emphasis on the subject of workers’ mental health, which in the past has frequently been neglected. Even without the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the digital transformation at the workplace often challenges and overwhelms the human psyche in a variety of ways. For this reason, the Commission has announced an EU initiative to assess problems in workers’ mental health caused by digital work and propose guidelines for countermeasures by the end of 2022. The Commission further intends to ensure that the European Parliament’s call for a “right to disconnect”, i.e. the right not to be reachable at all times, is taken up. The social partners are called upon to update their agreements regarding the psychosocial and ergonomic risks of digital work by 2023. The Commission has also announced its intention to revise the Workplace and Display Screen Directives by 2023 in order to take better account of new technological developments and the needs of older workers.

Prevention continues to be a core theme of the occupational safety and health strategy. More investigations of workplace accidents, more information for workers, and finally stricter enforcement of safety and health regulations are intended to help achieve the ambitious goal of Vision Zero. The work-related causes of cardiovascular diseases and musculoskeletal disorders are still not sufficiently researched, nor are employees and employers adequately aware of them. Workers must also be better informed and trained in the handling and use of dangerous medical products or chemicals such as reprotoxic substances. The Commission has therefore also announced updated guidelines for 2022 and a revision of the EU rules on dangerous substances, in particular with the aim of more effectively preventing reproductive diseases, diseases of the respiratory tract, and above all cancer, which is the main cause of work-related deaths in the EU.

Under the third heading, Preparedness for future crises, the Commission has outlined a contingency procedure for future potential health crises. This particularly includes a mechanism for Member States to notify the Commission of the occurrence of crisis-related occupational health hazards and corresponding national safety and health plans.

In 2023, the Commission will carry out a mid-term review with all stakeholders, and if necessary make adjustments to the framework.

Angelika Wessels