KANBrief 3/14

The trade unions' expectations of market surveillance

When work equipment bears the CE mark in accordance with an EU product directive or regulation, employees and employers should normally be able to rely upon it being of safe and ergonomic design. Sadly, this is not always the case. Year after year, unsafe work equipment and consumer products can be found on sale, and dozens of recalls and over a hundred reports to the authorities are noted. Checks are therefore absolutely essential.

The trade unions have a strong interest in market surveillance authorities not simply functioning, but being able to carry out their tasks highly effectively, since these tasks are extremely important in the interests of product safety, particularly that of work equipment.

Within the concept of shared responsibilities in place within the EU, market surveillance is the crucial element for safety. In this concept, the state specifies the essential requirements for products. These requirements are supported in private-sector standards, which provide manufacturers with a means of satisfying the statutory provisions. Finally, the checks performed by the market surveillance authorities ensure that the safety objectives are met. Statutory provisions and state surveillance therefore serve as the boundaries between which the private sector is responsible for standardization and production.

Insufficient capacity

That essentially is the theory. In practice, things are a little different. In Germany, staffing levels at the responsible regional authorities have been progressively reduced over the years. Numbers in the labour inspectorates were reduced by a quarter between 2001 and 2012 alone. More recently however, a reversal in this trend has been noted in some regions. In Baden-Württemberg and Lower Saxony for example, staff numbers at the labour inspectorates have been substantially increased in the last three years (Source: Sicherheit und Gesundheit bei der Arbeit. Annual reports of the German Federal government. For the latest (2012) edition).

Despite this, one target variable in particular presents a major challenge: under Section 26(1) of the German Product Safety Act, the market surveillance authorities must test 0.5 products per 1,000 residents each year. Many of Germany's regional authorities currently fail to meet this target by a wide margin.

Expectations upon the market surveillance authorities

As long as these bottlenecks exist, priorities must be set. In the trade unions' view, this applies above all to the subject of surveillance.

• In addition to the numerous consumer products, appropriate attention should be paid to work equipment products. We also expect the market surveillance authorities to address the most hazardous products as a matter of priority in their annual programmes and principal activities (Compare in this context: Gefährliche Produkte. Informationen zur Produktsicherheit, published by the BAuA, latest edition 2013). One important source of information for this would be the accident investigations conducted by the statutory accident insurance institutions and the labour inspectorates.

• In addition and importantly, the products and product categories identified as being particularly dangerous should not be inspected only when they are placed on the market, when they are still new; they should also be inspected in use, under realistic operating conditions, since experience shows that faults become apparent or lead to accidents when the work equipment is actually used.

The trade unions are more than willing to support the market surveillance authorities in these tasks and to develop the existing contacts further, since it goes without saying that representatives of the workforce know exactly where the main sources of hazard are to be found in their companies. The Joint German OSH Strategy (GDA), in which the German state (federal and regional governments), the statutory accident insurance institutions and the social partners agree targets and measures for prevention, is a suitable instrument for this co-operation. Besides the long-term fields of action for an entire GDA period (currently 2013-2018), short-term market surveillance activities should also be agreed, if necessary separately by region.

The market surveillance authorities must be able to assume their tasks with confidence in the future. Adherence to statutory provisions is also absolutely essential for this purpose, as is adequate personnel. Where individual standards do not reflect the state of the art for the fulfilment of these tasks, they cannot serve as a yardstick for surveillance. KAN performs important work in this area by drawing attention to standards that do not satisfy the statutory requirements and proposing corrective action within standardization.

Ulrich Bamberg
Until April 2014, head of the employees' liaison office at KAN

Heinz Fritsche
IG Metall, Deputy Chairman of KAN