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October 5, 2009

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Europeans feel health and safety is suffering in the recession

Six out of 10 people in Europe think the economic crisis is adversely affecting health and safety conditions in the workplace, but British and Irish citizens are more optimistic on this issue than most.

This could be explained by the fact that in the UK and Ireland, a far greater proportion of people than in any of the other 25 EU member states think health and safety in their respective countries has improved over the last five years, and that they are kept well informed of workplace risks.

These are just some of the findings of a Europe-wide poll on occupational health and safety carried out earlier this year by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA). In all, 1000 people in each member state were asked five questions to gauge their opinions on such issues as influencing factors when deciding whether or not to take a new job, and work as a cause of ill health.

Three quarters of respondents (75 per cent) believe ill health is caused at least to some extent by the job people do, with people in Lithuania, Slovakia and Cyprus being most adamant that this is the case. In the UK and Ireland, 70 and 68 per cent, respectively, agreed.

Despite — or perhaps because of — the fact that the British and Irish feel health and safety has improved in their countries since 2004 (Ireland topped the list of 27 member states on this issue, with 83 per cent of respondents saying it was better, or much better; in the UK it was 75 per cent) citizens in both countries rated ‘safe and healthy working conditions’ as the least important of four considerations when taking a new job, the others being job security, salary, and working time.

That job security was the top consideration is not surprising, given the current economic situation, which is affecting most European countries to a greater or lesser extent. Ireland and the UK were not far off the overall EU average (61 per cent) in terms of the percentage of respondents who feel the economy is affecting health and safety conditions at least to some extent (60 and 49 per cent, respectively) but in Lithuania, Slovakia and Greece, more than 80 per cent believe health and safety is suffering.

And this pessimism is not just felt in the newer member states: Sweden, France, Italy and Belgium all scored higher than the EU average on this question.

According to European Agency director, Jukka Takala, these findings should act as a reminder to businesses of the importance of investing in their workers’ well-being. He said: “The financial crisis may lead organisations to ignore, or minimise the importance of workplace safety and health, and there is even a risk that companies will consider cutting back on their investment in occupational safety and health. The challenge to us, as the Agency, is to convince them that there is no point in making short-term gains at the cost of long-term problems. All of our work shows that the more healthy workplaces are, the more productive they also tend to be.”

Chair of the Health and Safety Executive, Judith Hackitt, was particularly pleased that 85 per cent of British respondents feel well informed about health and safety. “It means,” she said, “we are all doing a good job in getting the important messages across to every member of every workforce. Understanding your rights and your responsibilities is fundamental to addressing workplace risks and going home safe and well at the end of every day.”

The full results, which are broken down by member state, are available here.

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