Communication on the practical implementation of directives on health and safety at work

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Communication on the practical implementation of directives on health and safety at work

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Employment and social policy > Health hygiene and safety at work

Communication on the practical implementation of directives on health and safety at work

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Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of Regions on the practical implementation of the provisions of the Health and Safety at Work Directives 89/391 (Framework), 89/654 (Workplaces), 89/655 (Work Equipment), 89/656 (Personal Protective Equipment), 90/269 (Manual Handling of Loads) and 90/270 (Display Screen Equipment) [COM(2004) 62 – Not published in the Official Journal].



Directive 89/391/EEC changed the practical perspective of the protection of the health and safety of workers by introducing an integrated preventive approach and by making ongoing improvement of health and safety conditions at work a requirement. This new approach is based on the fundamental principles which the framework Directive 89/391/EEC introduced, namely, employer responsibility, prevention, information, training, consultation and participation of workers. Directive 89/391/EEC and Directives 89/654/EEC, 89/655/EEC, 89/656/EEC, 90/269/EEC and 90/270/EEC led to the rationalisation and simplification of the National legislative corpora. Transposal of the directives obliged the Member States to switch from legislation often based on remedial principles to a preventive approach based on individual behaviour and organisational structures.


Analysis of the transposal of the framework directive has made it possible to highlight shortcomings in nearly all the Member States, particularly as regards scope, employer responsibility, the principles of prevention, the extent of the obligation to evaluate risks to the health and safety of workers, protection and prevention services, the obligation to keep records of risk assessment in all types of companies and, lastly, information, consultation, participation and training of workers.
As far as individual directives are concerned, the situation as regards transposal is more positive and most of the shortcomings observed have been rectified without the need for infringement proceedings, which have, however, been necessary in certain cases.


Substantial heterogeneousness continues to exist in the practical implementation of the various directives, depending on the countries, the different sectors of activity and the size of company. Nevertheless, the primary aims of guaranteeing common minimum standards of protection through harmonisation of the recommendations on safety and health, reducing the number of accidents at work and the number of cases of occupational diseases, have been attained.

Publicity and supporting measures

Although National (action plans and awareness-raising campaigns) and European (role of the European Agency for Health and Safety at Work) measures have contributed greatly to better understanding of the new legislation and better awareness by employers and workers alike of their rights and obligations, the impact of these measures varies depending on the economic players to whom they apply. While things run smoothly from this point of view in the bigger companies, this is not the case in the small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), where a big effort is needed.

Awareness raising

Despite the huge volume of information available, the level of information among employers and workers, particularly in the SMEs, is insufficient. Employers point to problems in understanding the legislation. This stems from the nature of the provisions, which involve establishing a general objective, and from the fact that there is no information at National level to help employers establish prevention plans tailored to the risks detected in the risk assessment.

Risk assessment, documentation and supervision

The points to be improved concerning the practical implementation of the provisions related to the risk assessment are:

  • superficial, schematic procedures place tend to focus on obvious risks, while long-term effects (e.g. psychological and psycho-social factors) as well as the more insidious risks, e.g. those caused by chemical substances, are neglected;
  • as a result, there is no overall or integrated approach to risks and measures are taken in isolation;
  • risk assessment is often considered as a one-off obligation and lacks continuity;
  • the effectiveness of steps taken is not sufficiently monitored by employers.

Protective and preventive services

Not all companies comply with their obligation to set up departments to protect against and prevent occupational risks, either by designating a worker to carry out such activities or, if this is not possible, by calling in an external service. This is particularly the case of the SMEs.
The introduction of such services is held up by the lack of qualified personnel, the low quality of the services delivered (unilateral importance attached to the technical aspects, few multi-disciplinary services) and by the tendency for employers to use the cheapest possible services.

Information, consultation, participation and training

Few data are available on information flow but it is clear that the practical implementation of the obligation to inform workers leaves a lot to be desired by comparison with the other obligations which employers have to comply with. This is the case of nearly all the industrial sectors in all the Member Stakes irrespective of size of company. The problem is particularly manifest among temporary workers. Nor is the participation of workers organised satisfactorily despite the range of options proposed by the directives.

Organisation and management of health and safety at work

The growing complexity of work processes, trends in working conditions and changes in the types of risks encountered as a result, call for a transparent and systematic approach to health and safety at work. Yet, with the exception of the bigger companies, safety and health are seldom an integral part of companies’ overall management process.


Enforcement of health and safety at work legislation is primarily a matter for the labour inspectorates, often working in conjunction with other specialised monitoring agencies in certain sectors of activity. The progress made with implementation by the Member States is generally measured taking the ratio between the number of labour inspectors in each Member State and the number of inspections performed every year. 1 400 000 inspections are carried out every year in the European Union by approximately 12 000 inspectors.

The entry into force of the new EU health and safety legislation and does not appear to have boosted the number of inspections. In their reports, the Member States point to a chronic lack of resources in their labour inspectorates to cover all aspects of the new legislation, particularly in the SMEs.

The analysis carried out shows that the action of the EU labour inspectorates actively contributes to bringing down the rate of absenteeism due to occupational accidents and diseases and also to changing the approaches of those involved in prevention at workplace level. Further progress is needed in order to improve checks in the SMEs and the high-risk sectors and in order to make warnings and sanctions more dissuasive.

Analysis of two specific cases: SMEs and the public sector


The analysis shows that there are major shortcomings in complying with essential elements of EU health and safety legislation in SMEs, in particular as regards risk assessment, workers’ participation and training, and in the traditionally high-risk sectors of agriculture and construction. These shortcomings stem primarily from:

  • the lack of information and specific (targeted information distributed locally) and comprehensible guidelines;
  • poor capacity and skills in terms of health and safety;
  • lack of resources to ensure appropriate basic training of workforce and managers;
  • poor access to effective, specific and specialised technical assistance.

The public sector

The inclusion of the public sector within the scope of the health and safety legislation is a groundbreaking development in most Member States.

Despite problems in certain countries (particularly in the military sector), the transposal of European legislation in the public sector can all in all be considered to be satisfactory. The degree to which it is implemented nonetheless poses certain problems because:

  • it is widely held in public administration that the risk levels are negligible by comparison with the private sector;
  • it is not generally for labour inspectorates to intervene in public administration or the in-house departments responsible for this function do not have enough hierarchical autonomy;
  • the budgets allocated are often limited.


The National reports show that the majority of Member States consider that it is as yet too early to make a proper and full evaluation of effectiveness. Although nearly all Member States believe there has been a positive impact, they do not have the data or statistical results available yet to substantiate that impact. Nevertheless, the evaluation that the legislation has contributed to making the workplace safer is supported by general statistical data on occupational health and safety.

Effects on accidents at work and occupational diseases

The most up-to-date statistics (for the year 2000) show that the accident rate per 100 000 workers had fallen from 4513 to 4016 since 1994. Also by comparison with 1994, there was a marked improvement in the rate of fatal accidents in Europe, which fell back from 6423 to 5237 in 2000.

The 1999 labour force survey and those conducted by the European Foundation for Living and Working Conditions, for their part, show that the active population feels that working conditions have not improved overall. A great deal remains to be done with regard to monitoring and organising work in order to head off intensive working patterns, problems stemming from working on screen, repetitive movements and psychological damage.

Costs and benefits in the enterprises

Member States have indicated in their National reports that due to the lack of indicators they consider that it is not possible to make a full evaluation, but acknowledge that a reduction in accidents at work and worker absenteeism brings about a clear reduction in business costs, which should in turn boost productivity.

General economic effects

In the European Union the costs for accidents at work and work-related illnesses are estimated between 2.6 and 3.8% of the gross National product (GNP). 158 million days of work were lost in the Union in 2000. Around 350 000 workers were obliged to change their job as a result of an accident. Nearly 350 000 workers have various degrees of permanent disability and 15 000 have been forced out of the labour market. However, the fall in the number of accidents at work since the entry into force of Community legislation is estimated to have generated savings of 25 million days of work.
So, while the implementation of this legislation may not be totally satisfactory, it has definitely produced economic benefits.

Effects on employment and competitiveness

The beneficial effects of investment in health and safety at work take some time to filter through. This makes it very difficult for the time being to draw conclusions on the impact of the legislation in question on the competitiveness of the business sector. Cost/benefit analyses will have to be carried out in order to evaluate the short and longer term effects. As an overall conclusion, Member States in their National reports generally indicate that health and safety at work measures contribute towards improved working conditions, boosting productivity, employment and competitiveness.


Positive effects, problems with implementation and suggestions for improving the various Directives

  • Framework Directive 89/391/EEC

-This downward trend in the number of accidents at work and the aforementioned increase in employers’ awareness are considered by the Member States to be the great achievement of Directive 89/391/EEC. The following positive points were also mentioned:

  • emphasis on a prevention philosophy;
  • broadness of scope;
  • obligation for the employers to perform risk assessments and provide documentation;
  • obligation for the employer to inform and train workers;
  • rights and obligations of the workers;
  • the opportunity to consolidate, rationalise and simplify the National regulations in force.

The main problems pointed to by the Member States arose in the SME context and concerned the administrative obligations and formalities, the financial burden and at the time needed to prepare appropriate measures. Other difficulties were:

  • the lack of participation by the workers in the operational processes;
  • the absence of evaluation criteria for National labour inspectorates;
  • the lack of harmonised European statistical information system on occupational accidents and diseases;
  • problems in implementing certain provisions in the SMEs.

– If the degree of implementation of the directive is to be improved then there is a need to:

  • increase the level of application of the Directives in SMEs;
  • ensure the availability of comprehensive and harmonised statistics on occupational accidents;
  • provide easy access to information and assistance for employers and workers to make them aware of their rights and obligations;
  • step up action and allocate the resources necessary to guarantee uniform, effective and equivalent implementation;
  • identify any provisions of the Directives that have been outdated by technological development and need to be reviewed;
  • focus greater attention on the specific situation of temporary workers.
  • Directive 89/654/EEC on workplaces

– The positive aspects:

  • regulation of various situations which would not have received the required attention had they not been dealt with by the European Directive, e.g. windows, translucent partitions, doors or gates opening upwards, emergency routes and exits, etc.;
  • reinforcing regulations on the employers’ obligations relating to workplaces used for the first time, and workplaces already in use.

Implementation difficulties:

  • excessive detail concerning certain aspects, this being detrimental to the proper transposal of the directive ;
  • unclear distinction made by the Directive between workplaces used for the first time and those already in use ;
  • the investment required to adopt the new provisions in SMEs.

– Suggestions for improvement:

  • the need for a co-ordinated approach to the problems regarding environmental conditions, e.g. by exchange of relevant experience among Member States;
  • the establishment of guidelines and recommendations (with up-to-date data, charts and figures) in order to clarify certain aspects (ventilation, lighting, temperature, dimensions of the workplace, etc.);
  • examining the provisions which are applicable to teleworking.
  • Directive 89/655/EEC on the use of work equipment by workers at work

-The positive points:

  • minimum safety level for work equipment defined;
  • National regulations unified and harmonised, which has contributed towards simplification;
  • scope extended to a greater number of items of work equipment;
  • standards generally clearer and more specific;
  • employer awareness raised with regard to the safety level of work equipment;
  • adaptation, official approval and modernisation of work equipment in use;
  • more active prevention of risks associated with the use of work equipment;
  • better analysis of factors to be taken into account when acquiring new equipment.

– Implementation difficulties:

  • excessive cost for SMEs which do not have the necessary financial resources;
  • the need for long-term investment to adapt work equipment;
  • the practical distinction between the Directive on safety in the use of work equipment and the machinery Directive has not been made sufficiently clear;
  • the definition of various safety levels for a machine already in use and for a new machine makes it difficult to adapt it to the requirements of the Directive.

-Suggestions for improvement:

  • clarification of the various safety levels for a machine in use and for a new machine;
  • support measures to smooth over the implementation of the directive, particularly for the SMEs: financial aid, loans, etc;
  • publication of guidelines on the practical part of the provisions.
  • Directive 89/656/EEC on the use by workers of personal protective equipment

– The positive points:

  • National legislation has been standardised, simplified and co-ordinated;
  • extension of the regulations to new sectors and new equipment ;
  • obligation on the employer to assess risks before selecting individual protection equipment and a widespread increase in awareness as regards the conditions to be met by this equipment;
  • greater detail in the regulations, which entail, for instance, knowing the exact type of activities in which certain individual protection equipment is mandatory.

– Implementation difficulties:

  • lack of assistance for SMEs, which have difficulty in selecting suitable protection equipment by themselves;
  • cost of new equipment for small companies;
  • workers insufficiently familiar with the use of personal protective equipment.

– Suggestions for improvement:

  • the Commission should publish specific guidelines and codes of good practice, which would include selection criteria for personal protective equipment;
  • supplement the annexes to the directive in order to make it easier for companies to choose equipment;
  • synchronisation and simplification of implementation reports.
  • Directive 90/269/EEC on the manual handling of loads

– The positive points:

  • support for existing regulations on manual handling of loads in some Member States;
  • regulations which are clear and have been generally applied without problems;
  • improvements in the level of awareness of employers (taking on board the ergonomics aspects in risk assesment);
  • these obligations have been put into practice in nearly all sectors of industry.

– Implementation difficulties:

  • job losses could result from a high level of mechanisation and costs;
  • some aspects of the Directive are considered too detailed (although this is considered a positive aspect in some Member States);
  • the possibility that a series of workplaces may cease to be considered as suitable for women;
  • the absence of standards other than those of load weight and distance, regarding rest periods and rest intervals.

– Suggestions for improvement:

  • several Member States are of the opinion that limit values should be set, since the margin for interpretation allowed as regards manual handling of loads is excessive;
  • the Commission should give details concerning evaluation models and guidelines;
  • the application of ergonomics principles to the handling of materials should be given closer attention.

Directive 90/270/EEC on work with visual display equipment

– The positive points:

  • further support for control and improvement of the ergonomics aspects of workstations using visual display equipment;
  • introduction of rest periods and the workers’ right to better health surveillance, in particular eye tests;
  • these obligations have been put into practice in nearly all sectors of the industry.

– Implementation difficulties

  • a number of problems are difficult to solve (use of natural light, the ergonomics aspects of seating, the inability to neutralise certain electromagnetic fields);
  • confusion as to who is authorised to or should carry out eye tests;
  • problems stemming from teleworking and supervision of working conditions within that framework.

– Suggestions for improvement:

  • it would be advisable to specify the provisions on changes of activity or rest periods, as well as the persons to whom they should apply;
  • the problems caused by electromagnetic radiation from terminals, lasers and magnetic fields should be examined;
  • various Member States consider a review of the Directive to be appropriate, in order to adapt it to technological development.


The analysis concerns the transposition and application of the framework directive 89/391 on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work as well as of the first five individual directives, addressing particular workplace environments or risks. The individual directives concern in particular:

  • minimum requirements for the workplace (Directive 89/654/EEC)
  • the use of work equipment (Directive 89/655/EEC)
  • personal protective equipment (Directive 89/656/EEC)
  • manual handling of loads (Directive 90/269/EEC)
  • display screen equipment (Directive 90/270/EEC)

This report is the Commission’s response to the call made in the framework directive and in the five individual directives to “submit a report on the implementation of the various directives at regular intervals to the European Parliament, the Council and the Economic and Social Committee”

A major input to this Communication are the National reports provided by the Member States in accordance with the directives which state that “Member States shall report to the Commission every five years (every four years for Directives 90/269 and 90/270) on the practical implementation of the provisions of this Directive, indicating the points of view of employers and workers”. It is also based on a report by independent experts.

Key figures of the act (for the year 2000)

  • Number of accidents (having resulted in absence from work of over three days): for 100.000 workers, 4016 cases (4539 in 1994);
  • Fatal accident rate: 5237 cases (643 in 1994);
  • Cost of accidents at work and of occupational diseases: between 2.6 and 3.8% of GDP
  • Days of work lost as a result of accidents at work: 158 million;
  • 7% of accident victims are forced to change jobs;
  • 4% of accident victims have to reduce their working hours or suffer varying degrees of permanent disability;
  • 15.000 workers were forced out of the employment market for good following an accident at work;
  • 14% of workers have more than one accident per year.

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