“FIT FOR WORK” reception, 30 September 2009, speech by Jan Jařab, Member of Cabinet of Commissioner Vladimír Špidla
Honourable Members of the European Parliament, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is my great pleasure – and honour – to forward to you the greetings of Commissioner Vladimír Špidla, and to congratulate you in his name on the valuable report which is being launched today.
Commissioner Špidla regards issues of health and safety in the workplace as being of great importance. Indeed, he often emphasizes that this is perhaps the area where European policies which belong to his portfolio of employment, social affairs and equal opportunities can have the most profound effect on real life, even though it is not always recognised as such by opinion makers in Brussels.
After all, it is telling that the largest number of legislative initiatives carried out or launched in the area of employment, social affairs and equal opportunities during the Commissioner’s mandate belong to the area of occupational health and safety. And they cover a broad range of issues, from carcinogens to electromagnetic fields, from needle stick injuries to smoking and… musculoskeletal disorders.
In the protection of occupational health and safety, we have already made enormous progress over the last decades. I am sure you have seen the famous pictures of workers on American skyscrapers from the 1930s, with persons standing in mid-air on planks held in place only by the sheer weight of their colleagues. You might point out that this was America, not Europe, but conditions were probably similar all across the Western world – and indeed, we still see similar images today coming from other parts of the planet.
In Europe, we can say that we have come a long way. Many of the more visible and more immediate risks are now reasonably well controlled. The emphasis is gradually shifting to areas where the risks are long-term and the potential problems are of chronic nature. Therefore, work-related musculoskeletal disorders represent one of the main areas of contemporary policy-making in the domain of occupational health and safety. And it is of crucial importance that in many of these disorders, timely intervention can actually prevent catastrophic development, prevent them from turning into chronic and disabling health conditions.
Work-related musculoskeletal disorders affect people in various sectors of activity in the EU, causing human suffering as well as major financial costs to businesses and society at large. In the context of demographic change which will require prolonging working life and ensuring higher participation of older workers in the productive process, these costs could increase even further. Or else, to formulate the issue in positive terms, if we wish to postpone retirement and prolong working life, we need to ensure that European workers reach their late 50s and early or mid-60s in good health. This involves, of course, primary prevention of musculoskeletal disorders as well as early intervention or secondary prevention when first symptoms occur.
At present, these disorders are covered by various individual Directives – on vibration, on manual handling of loads, on work with display screen equipment as well as by the general provisions of the “framework” Directive on health and safety in the workplace. Nevertheless, it has to be admitted that the current regulatory framework does not cover all types of work situations or address all risk factors leading to work-related musculoskeletal disorders.
Already in its 2002 communication Adapting to change in work and society: a new Community strategy on health and safety at work 2002-2006, the Commission announced its intention to adapt the existing legislation to the emerging problem of musculoskeletal complaints, supplementing where necessary the existing provisions so as to take better account of ergonomics at the workplace.
The Commission launched the first-stage consultation of the social partners on work-related musculoskeletal disorders, in November 2004. Having carefully examined the responses of the European social partners, the Commission decided to launch the second-stage consultation of the European social partners on the content of possible future Community initiatives in this area in February 2007. It advocated a global approach to the prevention of these disorders, combining regulatory and non-regulatory elements.
As for the regulatory elements, the legislative initiative would take the form of an individual directive addressing all significant risk factors of work-related musculoskeletal disorders and laying down minimum health and safety requirements for protecting workers from exposure to these risk factors in all workplaces.
The Commission has included this initiative in its legislative working programme as a simplification initiative that aims at making legislation easier to apply (reducing the number of reference texts), less burdensome (simplifying administrative and technical obligations) and more effective (making the legislation easier to implement and enforce than it is at present). In particular, the envisaged directive would enable simplifying the existing health and safety EU regulatory environment by integrating the provisions of the existing directives on manual handling of loads and work with display screen equipment into the new legislative instrument. (This, then, is an example of a simplification initiative which certainly cannot be regarded as one which aims at “deregulation”.)
At present, the Commission is conducting a consultation process, involving the Advisory Committee on Safety and Health at Work and a technical working group of national experts on ergonomics which the Commission has set up to be assisted in the development of the more technical aspects of the proposal. The Advisory Committee could adopt its opinion in December 2009, and the proposal could be adopted by the Commission by April 2010.
In addition, several outreach initiatives at Community level were indicated in the second-phase consultation document, designed to promote awareness-raising activities, better prevention guidance and compliance assistance, in conjunction with the Senior Labour Inspectors Committee, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, the Advisory Committee for Safety and Health at Work and the sectoral social dialogue committees.
Some of these initiatives have already been carried out, in particular the 2007 “Lighten the Load” Campaign of the Bilbao Agency, the Manual Handling of Loads Campaign conducted by the Senior Labour Inspectors Committee in 2007-2008, and a number of sector initiatives in the framework of the social dialogue (e.g. telecommunications, agriculture)
It is perhaps also worth mentioning that there is a new Communication in the pipeline which is to be presented jointly by Commissioners Vassiliou and Špidla and deals with Health Inequalities. It is due to be adopted at the very end of October 2009, i.e., as one of the last documents to come through during the mandate of the present Commission.
To sum up, I would like to say that the European Commission recognises the issue of work-related musculoskeletal disorders as being not merely a health issue but also an economic issue, a social issue, and ultimately an ethical issue. Ours is, of course, an outgoing Commission, but I believe that you can be assured that the European Commission will continue to support developments leading to further progress in this area.
I would like to thank you for your attention and wish you success in your efforts to improve the protection of European workers from musculoskeletal disorders.
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