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November 20, 2009

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Pan-European survey highlights risk-assessment concerns

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) drew its

two-year Healthy Workplaces campaign on risk assessment to a close

earlier this week at a summit meeting in Bilbao, Spain.

The event, which was attended by dignitaries and health and safety practitioners from Member States, saw the presentation of preliminary results of the €2.6m European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (ESENER), which examined the risk-assessment attitudes and behaviours of organisations of various sizes across Europe.

The survey shows that despite the legal obligation to carry out regular risk assessments, between 10 and 15 per cent of small enterprises (those between 10 and 50 employees) still do not carry out a risk assessment, or even a more informal ‘workplace check’.

Asked why some checks did not occur, 73 per cent of SMEs and 44 per cent of large companies (those with more than 250 employees) cited that they were not necessary. This may indicate that SMEs have fewer problems than larger companies, or that they lack awareness and knowledge.

The survey also highlights that the smaller the establishments are, the more likely they are to ask an external service-provider to carry out a risk assessment. In fact, 40 per cent of small enterprises (10-19 employees) contract an external service-provider, compared with only 17 per cent of large enterprises (250 to 499 employees). In the EU, over a third (36 per cent) contract out their risk assessment, with large differences existing between countries — in the UK and Denmark, for instance, the figure is less than 10 per cent, while Spain sits at the other end of the scale, with just under 70 per cent of companies opting to outsource this function.

In looking at what issues caused businesses major or some concern, accidents, musculoskeletal disorders, and stress are the biggest worries for firms, while workplace bullying and harassment are of least concern. Asked what might prompt them to deal with psychological risks, 62 per cent cited the legal obligation and 38 per cent said employees’ requests are a major factor. However, just 12 per cent suggested high absenteeism is a factor. Just over half of very small businesses (10 to 19 employees) said they have consulted employees on measures to deal with psychological risks.

A final report on the survey is due to be published before the end of the year, with four further reports commissioned to look at the data and disseminate it at both a national and European level. The University of Essex will hold the data in an archive from the middle of next year.

As part of the campaign’s legacy, a free Online Risk Assessment (ORA) tool will also be launched by the EU-OSHA at the end of 2010, following two major testing pilots. The aim of the tool, said the Agency’s director Jukka Takala, is to make it much easier for SMEs to carry out risk assessments.
Jukka Takala was joined at the campaign’s closing event by Sven Otto Littorin, Swedish minister of employment (representing the Swedish EU Council Presidency); Celestino Corbacho, Spanish minister of employment and immigration; and Gemma Zabaleta, minister of employment in the Basque Government.

Said Mr Takala: “With over 450 Europeans dying every day from work-related causes, workplace health and safety cannot be regarded as a luxury in these times of economic crisis.”

Swedish minister Otto Littorin stated that “money spent on ensuring the health and safety of our workers is an investment, not a cost,” pointing out account that 6 per cent of European GDP is lost because of work accidents and ill health.

He added: “Occupational safety and health programmes have the potential to make us better equipped to meet the future challenges of our demographic development and the increasingly globalised world economy.”

Business and union leaders also applauded the Agency’s efforts in promoting risk assessment. Kris De Meester, of BusinessEurope, said that companies remain in business because they identify, manage and minimise risks in activities such as finance, marketing and HR. Describing it as the “motor of any OSH management system”, he said that health and safety risk assessment must also be seen as a usual business process, “not as a burden, not as an extra, and not something you do because you have to”.

Walter Cerfeda, ETUC Confederation secretary, said that SMEs were bearing the brunt of the recession, which had been caused by poor regulation in the financial markets and exploitation of limited resourses and human beings in the workplace. He advocated a “Keynesian” approach to health and safety in the workplace through better and more intelligent monitoring of processes; incentives, training and qualifications; and, in general, a more scientific approach to keeping workers healthy in the workplace.

A new two-year EU-OSHA campaign on safe maintenance will begin next year.

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