Iris Cepero interviews Dr Christa Sedlatsche, director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA).
In September 2011, Dr Christa Sedlatsche was appointed director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA). As a medical doctor and a specialist in occupational health, Dr Sedlatsche has always worked within the field of health and safety in various European countries. She talks to Safety Management about the agency’s work and the existing and upcoming challenges to occupational health in Europe and worldwide.
The EU strategy for 2007-2012 aimed to reduce occupational accidents in the 27 Member States by 25%. Can you anticipate the results of the evaluation that is taking place?
We do not have the final results yet, but I presume the goal of achieving a 25% reduction is quite close to reality. Over time the situation in Europe has improved. Having said that, we have to take into account that member states differ from one another. But in general, we see a positive picture. Though, to be honest, there is room for improvement.
What is the status of the work on the 2020 strategy for health and safety?
Based on the evaluation of the current strategy, the Commission has decided there will be a public consultation. This means that the Directorate General for Employment is going to ask the public, via the internet, for their input. There will then be a public consultation process, but this process has not yet started. We have to wait for the outcome of the current evaluation, and hopefully the Commission will start to develop a new strategy in 2013.
What challenges does the agency face in working with a club of 27 members in very different stages of health and safety law and practice?
This is a big challenge, in former years there were 15 member states, this year we will be 28. What we see is, of course, different systems, programmes and approaches to occupational health and safety at a national level. We have member states that are very advanced in their development and then we see member states that are struggling with the basics. These member states are particularly keen to have a new occupational safety strategy at European level because it provides them with guidance on how to implement it at the national level.
David Cameron has recently stated his position towards the European Union, including a referendum if the conservatives win the coming elections. What are the implications for Britain and OTHER member states in terms of health and safety regulations in the hypothetical scenario of a member withdrawal?
I personally think it would be, of course, a pity and it would not have a positive effect for occupational safety in Europe. We have always seen the United Kingdom as advanced and innovative in managing occupational safety and health. For me, as the director of the agency I would say that is would be a loss if United Kingdom withdrew from the EU.
In his 2011 report Reclaiming health and safety for all, Professor Ragnar Löfstedt SAID that although there have been some improvements in the relationship between the EU and the UK government, 41 of the 65 new health and safety regulations introduced between 1997 and 2009 originated in the EU, and EU Directives accounted for 94% of the cost of UK health and safety regulation introduced between 1998 and 2009. What is the agency’S perception of this report and the recommendation of a closer relationship?
I think it is a very good report. I am really fully aware of Löfstedt’s recommendations and I would also appreciate if all governments could work more closely with the Commission. The input from the member state level is key for a European policy and also for occupational safety and health. I think the report mirrors the situation in the UK and some recommendations are specific but it is appreciated at the European level too.
He is right; there is room for improvement to assist micro and small enterprises in dealing with occupational safety and health. In the agency we have developed an internet tool for risk assessment and now we are in a good position to work together with more than 16 member states. Member states are developing this very practical tool for specific sectors or for general use for all SMEs. It is a cost-free tool and easily accessible via the internet.
What are the existing channels for other European actors (membership organisations, businesses, etc) to influence the EU’s policies on health and safety law and practice? To what extent is this happening and how it can be improved?
In the European Agency we are working with a network of national governments, trade unions and employers’ organisations and this is extremely important. Our network is tripartite; we will only be successful if we manage health and safety in a proper way by working together with all stakeholders in the field of OSH. By working together based on tripartism we can get the most out of it.
The European Union is expected to be a beacon of good health and safety practice for the rest of the world. How influential is it really?
I totally agree with that statement. Europe has a responsibility and a vision for being seen globally. For example, we regularly work together with the United States and their department for Occupational Safety and Health and we see that we are very advanced in the implementation of OSH at company level. Europe has also a responsibility when we are outsourcing work to the developing world, sometimes with poor occupational health and safety practices. We have to co-operate with these countries and their OSH organisations. I think we have to take a leading role and responsibility especially in developing countries like China, India, Bangladesh, countries with very poor records in health and safety.
What is the impact of the eurozone crisis on future occupational health and safety regulations and directives?
Before I became director of the agency, I worked in Germany for eight years, and at that time we had a discussion about the impact on OSH in a time of economic crisis. My experience is that the big international companies like those in the car industry in Germany can be more flexible and are managing the crisis easier than the smaller ones. The bigger ones are planning for longer time periods and the approach is ‘once we will get out of the crisis we need the highly qualified people’. So they invest in human resources even in a time of crisis. But there are also studies already suggesting that management of occupational safety and health is not on their agenda anymore or they have capped their budget. So this is something we have to take care of in case we see it happening in some member states.
What is the relationship between the agency and commission in issues related to health and safety?
The relationship has been very good. We have regular communication and the Commissioner is very supportive of occupational safety and health in general, but also supporting the work of the agency. If decisions are taken, then they are taken at the highest level in the European Union. It is important for us to get the message across to policy makers at national and European level: the investment in OSH is not a burden, on the contrary it creates significant opportunities: reduced risks, lower accident rates, better business continuity, increasing productivity and a better reputation among suppliers, clients and other partners.
What are the agency’s current major campaigns?
Christa: We are carrying out a two-year campaign called ‘Working together for risk prevention’.
It is linked to the importance of working together: management, employers’ representatives and workers represented by trade unions. After two years, we will present evidence that business is good if we work together, and this is, of course, the same for occupational safety and health. We have already got very positive feedback from our network partners, they are presenting their experience in working well together. We see that the most successful ones have very good occupational health and safety management.
The next campaign, 2014-15, will deal with the management of psychosocial risks, focusing on the company level. Stress is causing high levels of sickness absence and also work-related diseases. We will tackle the topic in a very practical way, looking at instruments, programmes and policies which enable companies to reduce stress at work.
Sometimes we hear that it is easier to improve safety than health. Do you agree?
That is true. To improve safety at work is strongly related to technical measures. To promote the health of workers you need the co-operation of all workers individually. In order to succeed you need experience, knowledge and instruments targeted to the needs of employees. Workplace Health Promotion (WHP) is one of these excellent instruments where you need the active participation of employers and employees.
How can the British Safety Council help to raise awareness of major health and safety hazards and the campaigns the agency is working on?
Christa: The British Safety Council can promote the Agency’s work, especially the Healthy Workplace campaigns. It is also important for the British Safety Council to get the message across: the investment in OSH pays off, for the company as well as for the workers.
Are we doing enough in the EU to help migrant workers? are they receiving the protection, training, advice and information needed to stay healthy and safe?
This is a good question. I think there is room for improvement. We should assist migrant workers a lot more. It depends of course where the migrant force is working. I know that some member states have given a lot of assistance to providing information in the language of the countries the workers are coming from, for example. There are good programmes and instruments but I think that in general this should be improved in Europe.
What else is needed to educate young people in OSH risk awareness?
Christa: One of the crucial steps for improving the knowledge of young people is working together with schools and universities to introduce the topic of occupational safety and health in the curricula as early as possible. If you influence the knowledge and awareness of OSH of children and young people you will see better managers and workers in the future.
Do you mean in the curricula in general education?
It should start in primary school and I would say kindergarten but some people would argue that this is too much. You know that children learn very early when they are at risk, but it has to be well presented and you have to be careful about that. I remember that some years ago children learnt that they should take care of the environment. We see that it has had an impact. Now the children know how to recycle and how to preserve the environment. Nowadays this happens automatically and the same applies for occupational safety and health.
Is there the danger that the high standards of OSH in the EU would encourage business to look outside the EU to avoid bureaucracy and regulation?
I hope not. I have to say if we reduce standards, I dread to think of the consequences. Of course we should simplify, make things more user friendly and that is important. But I think that we cannot compare our level of occupational safety and health with Africa or South America. I think we are the frontrunners and this would be very dangerous if we started thinking otherwise.
But there is a danger that it might happen.
Then it will affect our economy. Against the background of an ageing society and workforce, we have to rely on qualified, healthy and motivated employees for the future. If we don’t follow this mission, then I think the economy will suffer.
What has been the agency’s greatest recent success in its campaigning and education work?
One of the greatest successes is that year after year more companies are joining our campaigns and this is a sort of testimonial saying occupational safety and health is important for our business. The level of awareness is getting higher and higher and we see that most member states are organising seminars, conferences, workshops to disseminate our material. This is important because more companies are joining and we know that decision making is at company level.
Is there anything you would like to say to our members?
I think it’s important for your members to put occupational safety and health regularly on the agenda, especially in negotiations with their high-level management. By means of good facts and figures we can prove the strong link between health and safety and the performance of the company.
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